PETRONELLA MCGOVERN Six Minutes. Reviewed by Sally Nimon
Petronella McGovern’s debut thriller contains a lesson for the digital age.
Six Minutes. A lost child. That’s it in a nutshell. As the world witnessed in horror the unfolding of the infamous James Bulger case in the early 1990s, or Madeline McCann’s disappearance a decade or so later, the consequences of a few moments of parental inattention can be hellish and eternal. This is the scenario confronting readers in the opening pages of Petronella McGovern’s debut work of fiction.
It’s an ordinary Thursday. Over-anxious mum Lexie agrees to leave three-year-old Bella in the care of the other playgroup mothers while she runs to the shop to get biscuits. Four women. Seven children. One quick walk down the road. Nothing could be more normal. Except for one or two details slipped casually into the narrative. For example: why is this mother sporting a deep ugly cut along the length of one cheek? Why is her daughter’s wrist in a cast? And why is she picturing the ‘tablets in my top drawer’ and worrying whether her paediatrician husband has ‘realised I’d stopped taking them yet’?
Certainly, it’s clear that Lexie is anxious. Not just the normal anxious you might expect to feel in 21st century Australia, or the anxiety of having recently arrived in a new community, compounded by the responsibility of caring for a small child. What Lexie is experiencing seems to border on the pathological, to the point where an everyday scenario becomes elevated to the level of a major threat:
Could I leave Bella here and go on my own?… Worrying every step of the way … She would be safe here surrounded by the other kids and their mums. Safer than at home … I can do this. I can prove to Marty that I’m getting better.
There are a number of red flags in this passage. Lexie feeling that her daughter would be safer at playgroup than at home, for instance. And, if this is indeed the case, why does Lexie find it so hard to leave Bella in the care of other adults she sees as far more competent than herself? And then there is that word: ‘better’. Better than what? And getting better from what? What is Lexie so frightened of?
It turns out that there is more than one person in the small community of Merrigang – a fictional town located just outside Canberra – who is harbouring secrets. Brendan Parrish, local resident, appears to be an ordinary stressed primary-school teacher, whose biggest concerns are a disruptive pupil and getting enough time to slip away to the Australian snowfields. He’s aware – as is everyone in the small town – that a three-year-old is missing, but he appears to have no more interest than that until we witness him catching a glimpse of a headline in a Canberra Times left lying in the staffroom:
… the front page had a gigantic photo of Bella. He did a double take, half smirked and studied the picture closely. He read through the article – no, it didn’t mention his name.
Smirked? Is that really an appropriate reaction from an innocent man? And why would he expect the paper to mention his name? Then there’s Tara, one of the playgroup mums, who seems far more interested in flirting with any man in the vicinity and stirring up trouble than in offering help to her distraught fellow mother. Her behaviour during a routine interview with the investigating detective hardly reeks of concern:
Tara scanned the room and leaned in close to [the detective], despite the fact that none of the other mothers was near enough to hear their conversation.
‘You know that Bella has a cast on her left arm? Well, the whole story sounds strange to me. And you should see Lexie’s cheek. It’s got a big cut along the bone here … Let’s just say that nothing would surprise me.’
Six Minutes is a book woven from unease, threaded through with an air of creepiness that starts even before the drama of Bella’s strange disappearance. As with Broadchurch, a TV series also set in an isolated community and involving a missing child, the central drama is really a frame from which to examine the effects of such an event on the local community, and how tragedy can draw out the best and worst in us all. It is also an exploration of the weird paradoxes of the era in which we find ourselves. In a time of endless, open access to information, when every waking moment of our lives seems to be recorded, if not broadcast, on social media, a key event is not witnessed. In a small community where everyone knows everyone else, everybody has secrets. No matter how far you try to outrun your past, even uprooting your life and the lives of your family to the literal other side of the planet, somehow you never escape. And in a world supposedly moving to ‘wokeness’, with its focus on inclusiveness and harmony, judgements come swift and harsh, and the punishment can ultimately be far worse than the crime.
In the end, Six Minutes is a lesson for the digital age. Judge not lest ye be judged. And in the age of social media, judgement is the one thing that we can never outrun.
Petronella McGovern Six Minutes Allen & Unwin 2019 PB 432pp $29.99
Sally Nimon once graduated from university with an Honours degree majoring in English literature and has hung around higher education ever since. She is also an avid reader and keen devourer of stories, whatever the genre.
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