I try quite hard to have no expectations of the books I read. Even if I have enjoyed an author’s work before there is no guarantee I will do so the next time and sometimes I disagree with even my favourite reviewers. But I admit to tingling with anticipation when notified by the bookseller that my pre-order of Gunshot Road had left the warehouse and was on its way to me. I read it as the last book in my Aussie Author Challenge for this year.
Emily Tempest has become the world’s most unlikely cop, an Aboriginal Community Police Officer no less. On her first day on the job in Bluebush in the Northern Territory she is one of the officers called to the scene of a stabbing out at Green Swamp Well. On the surface it looks like an open and shut case: two old drunks got into a fight and one stabbed the other in the neck. But to Emily, who knows both the victim (Doc) and the suspect (Wireless), something doesn’t feel right and she can’t let the investigation slide.
Gunshot Road has it all. Literally. Everything I could possibly want from a work of fiction all in one gorgeous package.
First there are fantastic characters. Emily Tempest is brave and stubborn and smart and funny and, as was the case with the first book in which she features, I’m still not entirely sure how a bloke can create such a credible female character but I’m delighted he has. In this book she is more mature than in her first outing though she still struggles when she knows what she should do is not what she wants to do and usually her heart wins out over her head. For better or worse.
There are plenty of other beautifully depicted characters to look out for too. Like the teenage Aboriginal boy called Danny who is deeply troubled by something and unable to communicate his fears to Emily. And the town’s new top cop, taciturn and uncomprehending of all the things he doesn’t know, but trying to do the right thing in his way. And of course the setting, the harsh land in the country’s centre, is just as much a character as any person in the book.
The desert isolation, the unrelenting heat, the laconic humour, the often awkward relationships between blacks and whites all combine to form an unmistakably Australian story. It’s not always a pretty one though and no one could accuse Hyland of trying to make it so because he tackles touch subjects such as the rampant domestic abuse of women in Aboriginal communities, endemic poverty and racism. However he somehow manages to do it without once lecturing from a self-proclaimed moral high ground. That’s a much rarer trait than it ought to be in modern literature.
Next there is writing that made me simultaneously jealous at someone else’s ability to string words together in a way that I will never be able to and grateful that he didn’t keep his gift to himself. This is from the opening chapter about an initiation
The town mob: fractured and deracinated they might have been, torn apart by idleness and violence, by Hollywood and booze. But moments like these, when people come together, when they try to recover the core, they gave you hope.
It was the songs that did it: the women didn’t so much sing them as pick them up like radio receivers. You could imagine those great song cycles rolling across country, taking their shape from what they encountered: scraps of language, minerals and dreams, a hawk’s flight, a feather’s fall, the flash of a meteorite.
The resonance of that music is everywhere, even here, on the outskirts of the whitefeller town, out among the rubbish dumps and truck yards. It sings along the wires, it rings off bitumen and steel.
I could go on but I’d end up quoting the whole book. In short, Hyland’s writing is a thing of beauty and the entire book is, in part, one long ode to its country.
Finally there is a great story and Gunshot Road is a more solid piece of crime fiction than its predecessor. For the first half of the novel there’s a fairly slow, humorous approach to the investigation as we’re introduced to all the players and people tease Emily about her new obsession. Then at a certain point the novel switches gears and speeds up as it becomes more serious and foreboding. Together these halves make up a perfectly paced story with a genuine nail-biting finish.
Heck the book even incorporates, glorifies actually, geology, my favourite science. What more could I possibly ask for? Gunshot Road is a funny, beautiful, sad and thoughtful book that everyone should read. Immediately.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
My rating 5/5
Publisher Quercus ; ISBN 9781849162158; Length 369 pages
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
I read, and loved, Adrian Hyland’s first novel featuring Emily Tempest, Diamond Dove (a.k.a Moonlight Downs in the US) last year.