Book review: ‘Scrublands’ is a novel of drought, death and journalism in Australia

February 25, 2019
‘Scrublands’ by Chris Hammer, Atria Books, 2019, $368 pages, $26.99

Chris Hammer’s career as a journalist for over 30 years certainly sets him in good stead in “Scrublands,” his first novel. A native Australian, Hammer has covered his country’s national politics as well as international affairs. Already a bestseller in Australia, “Scrublands” is now newly published in America.

The novel is a sort of rural noir that examines 10 days in the life of Riversend, a small town in the Scrublands of the Riverina Division of New South Wales. To get into — and out of — town there is only a single-lane bridge: “no overtaking, no passing.”

It’s been a year since the horrific tragedy that turned the country’s focus upon the drought-ravaged town. It was then, as parishioners gathered for a morning service, that town priest Byron Swift, wearing his robes, “crucifix glinting as it catches the sun,” raised a high-powered hunting rifle, fired eight shots, made six direct hits, and killed five people.

As the anniversary of the tragedy approaches, journalist Martin Scarsden is assigned a story profiling the effect it has had on Riversend. That story is, hopefully, to be Martin’s return to his profession after time in the Middle East. Yet he remains haunted by his war experiences on the Gaza Strip.

What he finds, as the book-jacket reminds us, are “a dead river, a dying town, a killer’s secrets.” What he finds is that Byron Swift has “a shadowy past.” And he also learns of more bodies.

The bodies of two German women, college students declared missing for months before the town killings, are discovered in a dam on the outskirts of Riversend. They have each been shot through the head.

Martin also finds Riversend to be a town wary of strangers, especially reporters, a town whose residents are fleeing to any large city near them, a town with its remaining businesses barely holding on.

Most importantly, he finds residents of Riversend strongly divided as they recall their priest. Some remember him as a blessing; some remember him as a predator.

Helping Martin Scarsden get at the truth are a motley assortment of characters. Martin meets two women almost immediately. Mandalay Blonde (yes, that’s her name!) owns the local bookstore and coffee shop, both of which supply two of Martin’s immediate needs. Fran Landers, widow of one of Swift’s victims, owns the struggling general store. Both women hide secrets that are directly related to the killings of a year ago.

Robbie Haus-Jacobs is the local policeman forced to kill his friend Swift the day of the shootings. Codger Harris finds clothing totally superfluous when dealing with the blistering Australian heat. Jamie Landers, teenaged son of Fran, has his own unsettling secrets. And Harley Snouch (yes, that’s his name!) has reprehensible family secrets of his own.

It’s a large canvas that the author is painting. Some will call that canvas epic. Some will call that canvas unnecessarily complicated, possibly even convoluted. There’s a nagging dearth of specific detail about small-town life, even though there is room made for “a biker-run crime syndicate.” And there are probably too many of the author’s summaries of his excessive plotting.

“Scrublands” is an indisputable page-turner, though. It is often violent, and it can be occasionally disturbing. There is also its unwavering depiction of a journalist at a personal crossroads. Martin Scarsden will eventually learn to connect with events, not merely report them. It is in chronicling that journey that Chris Hammer’s first novel is at its satisfying best.

Steven Whitton is a retired Professor of English.

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