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Posted on 7 Jun 2022 in Fiction |

SULARI GENTILL The Woman In The Library. Reviewed by Emma Foster

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Best-known for her Rowland Sinclair detective stories, in this new novel Sulari Gentill puts merriment into a murder mystery.

From the moment the action kicks off in The Woman in the Library with a scream piercing the rarefied air of the Boston Public Library, there is a buoyancy to the prose that keeps the mood light and the pace steady.

The novel’s main delight is the Agatha Christie-esque whodunnit set-up that brings together a group of strangers with a common interest in exposing the murderous culprit, each in turn becoming a possible suspect.

But Gentill has thrown in extra layers, weaving in a second, equally entertaining narrative, creating a story within the story in which she explores the art of writing itself.

On one hand, the novel opens with a chit-chatty message to Australian author Hannah Tigone from one of her US fans, Leo. It transpires that Hannah sends Leo each chapter of the US-based novel she’s penning and he gives his feedback – whether to offer a US correction to her Australianisms, a critique of her characters, or a promise to scout location details.

This back and forth shapes the novel’s structure: we read a chapter of Hannah’s murder mystery as it unfolds, and it’s followed by Leo’s feedback.

Initially, it’s brilliant to see how Hannah reflects Leo’s comments in each successive chapter. But as the novel progresses, Leo’s meta commentary becomes increasingly disturbing, taking this subplot in a deliciously sinister direction.

Meanwhile, in the chapters of Hannah’s novel, another engrossing narrative unfolds.

We meet Hannah’s narrator, Freddie Kinkaid, who (like her) is an Australian novelist. Living in Boston after winning a writing scholarship, Freddie is at the Boston Public Library waiting for inspiration to strike, surreptitiously assessing the three strangers sitting near her with a view to incorporating them as characters in her latest work.

Her musings are suddenly interrupted by a woman’s scream, shocking her and her neighbours. The four strike up a quick bond, united by the trauma of the scream, and this evolves into a common quest to solve the mystery.

Enticingly, as the four decide to grab a coffee together at the end of the first chapter, Freddie makes an ominous revelation:

And so we go to found a friendship, and I have my first coffee with a killer.

From that first spark of intrigue, we remain in lock-step with Freddie as her relationships deepen with her three new friends – Cain McLeod, Marigold Anastas and Whit Metters – and the mysteries surrounding each character intensify.

The clever framing of these two entwined narratives – a device Gentill also employed in her novel Crossing the Lines – is carried off in a voice that clearly reflects the joy she takes in the absurd.

Even the farfetched nature of the plot is endearing, especially the quirky little asides, such as Freddie’s elderly neighbour, who fabricates her medical qualifications before stitching up a gash to Cain’s head.

But, as Gentill’s readers have also come to expect, she interlaces the fast-paced plot with discreet commentary on some big contemporary issues.

It’s an approach that also filters through her politically shrewd Rowland Sinclair series, the tenth instalment of which was published in January 2022. Set in the 1930s, the charming antics of an amateur detective are underpinned by a subtle exploration of the prevailing issues around fascism, religion and social inequity.

In The Woman In The Library, Gentill provokes thought on, among other things, climate change (Australia’s devastating Black Summer bushfires had a direct impact on Gentill herself, raging around her small country town of Batlow near the Snowy Mountains – she and her family were forced to evacuate their home, but miraculously it survived); and the COVID-19 pandemic (a topic that vexes her fictional writers as much as it does real ones, as they ponder whether to include or ignore it in their novels).

Racism was also dominating headlines as she wrote, including the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement, which is explored in her Hannah-Leo narrative.

Above all I appreciated the aspects of Gentill’s approach that were akin to a masterclass in novel writing, which flows throughout the novel in different forms. For example, not only do we see the way Hannah responds to Leo’s critiques in subsequent chapters, we are also given insights into Freddie’s writing process and how she absorbs her surroundings with the eye of a novelist. A motif throughout is Freddie’s analogy of her process being like ‘working on a bus’:

I’m not totally without direction … there is a route of some sort, but who hops on and who gets off is determined by a balance of habit and timing and random chance. There’s no symmetry, no plan, just the chaotic, unplotted bustle of human life.

The Woman In The Library, Gentill’s fifteenth novel since her 2010 debut, A Few Right Thinking Men, adds to her growing reputation among Australia’s crime fiction writing elite, while bringing a welcome blast of fun to the genre, playing to her signature witty strength.

Sulari Gentill The Woman In The Library Ultimo Press 2022 272pp $32.99

Emma Foster is a writer and reviewer. Her musings can be found at

You can buy The Woman in the Library from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW.

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