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Posted on 2 Dec 2021 in Crime Scene, Fiction | 1 comment

WENDY JAMES A Little Bird. Reviewed by Kim Kelly

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The ninth novel from Wendy James is a classic page-turning mystery that is both psychologically complex and authentically Australian.

Best known as the ‘queen of domestic noir’, James brings a keen understanding of social and political history to her richly layered tales, and in this new story, she brings that understanding to the fictional town of Arthurville – somewhere in Central West New South Wales.

In 2018, twenty-something Jo Sharpe has come home to Arthurville from Sydney, ostensibly to take up a job on the local newspaper and reconcile with her ailing father. She is at first a blank slate, ambivalent about returning, but quietly yearning to put the pieces of her life together – the most significant one being the disappearance of her mother back in 1994, when Jo was a young child.

Jo tells us from the outset that ‘hope doesn’t rely on possibilities or probabilities or proof – all it needs is a ready heart, an open mind’, but she is nevertheless carrying a swag full of serious emotional wounds. Apart from the questions surrounding her absent mother, her alcoholic father is a distant, angry man, and her extended family is also estranged; her dreams are unfulfilled, and her personal relationships all seem to have gone nowhere. 

Arthurville itself displays all the archetypal divisions of small-town Australia. Jo’s parents had been class-crossed lovers in the 1980s, her mother, Merry, landed gentry, and her father, Mick, working-class. James lays out the social hierarchies and racial bigotries, rural dynastic sexism and the relentless gossip – indeed, Jo Sharpe will discover that the newspaper’s old gossip column, ‘A Little Bird’, will hold vital clues to solving the mystery of her mother’s disappearance.

Through the insider-outsider eyes of Jo, James’s descriptions of the drought-stricken town crackle with life. She nails the sense of rural decay that has occurred in the bush in recent decades:

We turn down Brougham Street, pass a house that I remember vaguely – a small nineteenth-century brick cottage, with green-painted wrought iron verandah. There’s a pile of rotting papers and advertising catalogues around the mailbox, and the house looks abandoned – though it’s difficult to tell in a street where all the front lawns have turned to red dust.

In the main street of this once-thriving town, ‘Half the shops are boarded up, windows are smashed and walls are sprayed with graffiti,’ and it’s all a stark contrast to the way those with money live:

I drive up a poplar-lined carriageway and onto a circular driveway. The house is set in a luxurious parklike garden – a spreading jacaranda, flowering rosebushes, neatly clipped hedges, an immaculately tended lawn. A small stone fountain stands empty – the only apparent concession to the drought.

Behind every façade, however, James reveals surprising interiors, shadows that shift and deepen as the chapters unfold. As with all good mysteries, people are never quite what they seem – and it’s difficult to say much more about the mechanics of the plot without giving the game away.

What is far from typical in this novel is the way James places revelation of character ahead of plot acceleration. Her writerly eye for the impact of the socio-political details on everyday life is comparable to the portraiture of Emily Maguire, and much closer to the truths of the bush than some of the more recent blockbuster ‘rural crime’ novels might suggest, with their emphasis on ugliness and isolation.

James treats all her characters with respect for their humanity and lived experience, not least the Wiradjuri characters, who play both incidental and significant roles in the narrative. Arguably, it’s not possible to write faithfully about Central West New South Wales without including the First Nations people who live there, and James both avoids stereotype and interrogates it here. Her Wiradjuri characters are integral to Arthurville – a primary school principal, a talented dressmaker, the local pastor, a broken-hearted drunk – and one of them is crucial to solving the mystery. But while their storylines might sidestep cliché, James does make a few well-demonstrated points about systemic racism in Australia and the way it creates injustice.

No character in this novel is one-dimensional – even the local librarian, a bloke, reveals that he writes regency romance on the side. Generally, regardless of setting, it’s best not to make too many assumptions when reading a James mystery. There are a few bad guys, but as one character notes, ‘It would be easier, wouldn’t it, if [they] were all bad?’ James is such a master of eking out anticipation that the very minor subplot of Jo’s romantic life involves a couple of red herrings. 

This novel begins as a slow burn, with the dual narrative strands of Jo’s present and her mother’s history winding around each other like parched summer breezes, but at the halfway mark a tantalising clue is dropped and it’s time to strap in for an all-nighter. Will the story end as expected or will there be a twist in the tail? Will its explorations of the plight of women in the bush bring us a sad conclusion or a sinister one? As one of the characters observes, ‘there was a certain power that came with knowing other people’s secrets’. And, in Arthurville, there is undoubtedly a certain danger, too.

A Little Bird is the perfect holiday read for long, hot afternoons, and with its food for thought about the way Australia ticks, it’s a mystery with some decent meat on its bones.

Wendy James A Little Bird Lake Union Publishing 2021 PB 320pp $24.99

Kim Kelly is the author of eleven novels, including the acclaimed Wild Chicory and The Blue Mile. Her latest, The Truth & Addy Loest was published in February 2021. Find out more about Kim at:

You can buy A Little Bird from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW here or you can buy it from Booktopia here.

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.

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1 Comment

  1. Loved this review, and will be putting this one on my list. Why haven’t I read James before??? Thanks, Kim.