Books & Literature

Book Review: Scrublands, by Chris Hammer

A top-flight former foreign correspondent is sent to a drought-ridden, dying rural town to write an anniversary piece investigating how the town is coping one year after a young priest shot five men dead from the steps of his church.

The drought-ridden, bone-dry, dying outback town, Riversend, is a magnificent creation by Chris Hammer. Within it, he sets his debut crime thriller, one of uncommon depth and rewarding complexity.

Top-flight former foreign correspondent Martin Scarsden arrives in Riversend, at his editor’s request, to write an anniversary piece investigating how the town is coping one year after a young priest shot dead five men from the steps of his church. It’s a recovery job for a journo rattled by an overseas posting that could have cost his life.

Hammer brilliantly gives power and the expressive pace of the book over to nature and the small confines of the weather-torn town and outer scrublands. Outback drought impresses itself on Scarsden and on Riversend’s small populace: there’s the slow, relentless cycle of stifling heat; a mere two business days a week for what enterprise is left; and barely serviceable Internet.

The community is a struggling one cop, one grocer, one service club town baring its poverty troubles and history. There is a long-practised acceptance that Scarsden encounters with each human encounter, from the derro in the street to the eccentric, unhinged former bank manager living in the scrublands.

Scarsden’s questions about the day the priest, Byron Swift, massacred five men, elicits an extraordinary series of tales painting Swift far from a ruthless killer, but as a boon confidant to troubled youngsters and encouragement to those needing help. From the young cop who shot Swift dead, to a widow of one of Swift’s victims, there are words of praise.

Scrublands delves deeply into the dark realms of what it means to be a bystander or deeply involved in tragedy, before and after. Not content with confining himself to the simple reporting task at hand, Scarsden digs deeper into the stories he’s told. He begins scratching away at the fabric of the interrelationships between Riversend’s people and Swift. In doing so, he begins discovering contradictions as the town’s history and the true nature of certain townsfolk become apparent.

No one is left unscathed as Scarsden’s determined, straggling journey through long, slow days of heat tests his inner resolve, as do his professional demons and unpreparedness for hidden dangers, emotionally and legally. An unexpected, developing relationship with Bookshop/Café owner Mandalay Blonde, and the presence of security forces on the edge of Scarsden’s searching, suggest Riversend has more to it than it cares to confess openly.

Hammer’s writing is sparse and concise in its evocation of a land and people drained dry by unending tragedy and compromise. Scarsden’s own tragedy unleashes forces of change and truth trapped as if burned hard into the dirt, making for an intelligent, engrossing, utterly ripping read.

Reviewed by David O’Brien
Twitter: @DavidOBupstART

Rating out of 10:  10

Distributed by: Allen & Unwin
Released: August 2018
RRP: $32.99 paperback

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