MICHAEL BURGE Tank Water. Reviewed by Mary Garden
In Tank Water Michael Burge brings a fresh dimension to crime fiction set in small Australian towns.
Michael Burge’s debut novel Tank Water is a crime thriller set in rural Australia. Beautifully and vividly written, I read it quickly in one day. And a few weeks later, I read it again, slowly this time, savouring it.
There has been a preponderance of books set in country towns, so-called ‘bush noir’, but what sets this one apart is its subject matter: homophobia in country towns. The narrative shifts seamlessly between two timeframes – 1985 and 2005 ‒ as it examines a dark history of gay hatred and the deaths of several local boys, deemed suicides.
James Brandt left Kippen, a fictional small town in northern New South Wales near the Queensland border, as a teenager. Kippen is typical of many rural towns with its secrets, inter-generational trauma, fractured families, and kids moving away to cities and never returning. James, now a journalist in Sydney, returns for the first time in 20 years because his cousin Tony has been found dead under Kippen Bridge. His family don’t know that in Sydney James has been in a same-sex relationship with Dylan for many years.
Tony’s will has inexplicably left everything to James, including what remains of the Brandt family farm – five thousand acres and two homesteads: Glen Alpine, which had been their grandparents’ home, and Deloraine, where Tony’s parents still live. James’s father, Daniel, had sold his share of the family farm shortly after his youngest son, Gregory, died in a tragic accident when just a toddler. He retained the third homestead, The Mulgas, with a small backyard. The three houses are within running distance of each other.
There are two relationships that thread the narrative. There is James’s strained and fraught connection with his father, the town cop. At the local pub he explains to James, after draining his beer:
‘You know, an old mate of Dad’s once explained it to me at the saleyards. He reckoned it runs in families, this,’ and James watched with horror as his father tried to grasp invisible qualities between both hands, ‘this homosexual stuff. A couple of blokes I went to school with got over it. Tony could have got over it too. Alan’s alright, but the jury’s still out on you.’
And in strong contrast, his joyous and easy partnership with Dylan:
James pictured his boyfriend, pushing forty and filling out, in his best jacket with one of those expensive shirts that he always turned the collar up on, flirting in that defensive way when someone was coming on to him. He did it with women, and with men, and when James was there it always ended with Dylan’s hand coming to rest around his waist, or on his shoulder, or through the spaces between James’s fingers.
The other thread is James’s secret: that he is gay.
James needed one thing, one assurance that would get him away from this constant attention from everyone in the family. He already knew how to blend in. He could make himself even less noticeable if he really had to. He lifted his chin and looked his father in the eye. ‘It’s alright Dad, you don’t have to worry,’ he said. ‘I’m not a poof.’
Twenty years later, trying to understand why Tony killed himself, James narrowly escapes a brutal act of homophobic violence. As the truth about what goes on at Kippen Bridge starts to emerge, as well as the story of Tony’s failed marriage, James senses that something’s not right about the verdict of suicide. Standing in the way is his father, now retired, who is not prepared to investigate something he believes did not happen. This tightly written thriller builds towards an unexpected showdown that left me teary on both readings.
James’s little journalistic notes to self, sprinkled through the 2005 chapters, are a lovely touch, like this one:
Reasons this trip home is unlike any trip home, ever: –
I finally know where home is.
Home is Dylan.
One hour left in town, and: –
There’s no use going to the police. I’m on my own,
Dad always got violent when confronted with my sexuality.
They all did.
In Australia, in the past few decades, crimes like the one being depicted in Tank Water have been re-examined and re-opened and they are now known as gay hate crimes. In his Author’s Note at the end of the book Michael Burge refers to the academic work and archival records he has consulted on such crimes in rural areas, including the NSW Inquiry into Gay and Transgender Hate Crimes between 1970 and 2010, that inform the novel.
Australia has produced some of the world’s finest crime writers, including Peter Temple, Jane Harper, Michael Robotham and Chris Hammer. They, like Michael Burge, have all worked as journalists. This shows: their books are clearly written and easy to read.
In crime thrillers, the real story is seldom about the crime itself. They often explore social issues through a search for justice ‒ through standing up and staying ‘this is not right’. Michael has bravely and powerfully stood up and shone a light on gay hate crimes, crimes which still go on today.
Interviewed for a recent article in Arts Hub, ‘Why Australian crime writers are killing it’, author Selari Gentill points out, ‘Crime fiction is a literature of resistance, and in a time when there seems so much to resist, it strikes a chord with readers. It offers them a kind of solidarity and hope.’
Tank Water is a very fine addition to this literature of resistance.
Michael Burge Tank Water Midnight Sun 2021 PB 300pp $29.99
Mary Garden is an author and freelance journalist, with a PhD in Journalism. Her latest book Sundowner of the Skies was shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s History Award 2020, and her memoir The Serpent Rising: a journey of spiritual seduction, first published in 1988 and a new edition released in 2020, has just won the High Country Indie Book Award 2021. Her essays and articles have appeared in a range of journals, newspapers, and magazines, including The Humanist, The Australian Financial Review, The Australian, The Guardian, The Northern Times, and New Zealand Geographic, Born in New Zealand, after 45 years in Queensland she has recently moved to regional Victoria. You can find her on Twitter @marygarden
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