Angela Savage, Mother of Pearl (#BookReview)

Book cover

Having commented in my Reading Highlights post about how little self-directed reading I did last year, I decided to start the year with just that, before returning to the Review TBR pile. What to choose? Many books jostled for attention, but in the end I chose Angela Savage’s novel Mother of Pearl because I felt it would be a warm-hearted but meaty read, just right for this time of year. I was right.

Let’s start with the meaty first. The subject matter is commercial surrogacy, in Thailand specifically. This surrogacy involving “farang” couples was banned in Thailand during the writing of this book, but that doesn’t invalidate it. Many novels have been written about behaviours, cultures, practices that have changed or disappeared – and, anyhow, commercial surrogacy still exists in various forms in different countries around the world. So, on many fronts, both contemporary and historical, Mother of Pearl has much to offer.

And what it offers is a sensitive portrayal of a very complex issue. On the surface, the novel is about a childless Australian couple paying a poor Thai woman to carry “their” baby (created using the husband’s sperm and a donor egg) but, as Savage wrote on novelist Amanda Curtin’s blog*, what specifically interested her were “the political, ethical, cultural and emotional aspects of overseas surrogacy”. This, of course, makes the book sound very much like an “issues” novel, and it is. However, Savage, who is an experienced and award-winning crime writer – I have reviewed her novel, The dying beach – has written a novel that shows not tells, that is in no way didactic, that explores the “issue” from multiple angles without moralising.

How does she do this? Partly by creating well-rounded and engaging characters, which include Meg (the would-be mother), her sister Anna (an experienced Southeast Asian aid worker), and surrogate mother Mod. There are others, including Meg’s husband Nate. The novel starts in 1998 with Mod who is, then, a 16-year-old girl. We learn of the role of temple culture in her life, and we hear her “fortune” told which says that her “good luck will be earned, not won”. The novel then jumps ten years and we are introduced to forty-year-old Anna, recently returned from Cambodia, and her 14-months-younger sister Meg who has, ostensibly, given up the idea of having a child after years of trying, including gruelling IVF rounds. However, at Anna’s place, she meets a gay couple with a child born to a Thai surrogate mother, and the seed is sown.

Who are the winners, who are the losers (Anna, paraphrased)

From here, the novel, like many modern novels, switches perspectives, primarily between Mod, Anna and Meg, to explore the emotions and motivations, the practice and legalities of commercial surrogacy, and the cultural implications in Thailand. Anna – who is experienced in Thai culture and, let us say, the “disinterested” party – is our main guide through all this. She is, I’d say, our voice, because she is the one concerned about the exploitative aspects of this surrogacy. However, she comes to see that it’s a little more complex than would appear on the surface. This is not to argue that such surrogacy is a good thing, but that neither is it a black-and-white issue.

I particularly liked the way Savage explored the different motivations of surrogate mothers through Mod’s spending time with other surrogates and potential surrogates. We learn not only of the need for money, but of factors like the desire to earn Buddhist merit and the exploitation of young Thai women by their boyfriends and fathers. Exploitation, we realise, is a complex beast.

So, the novel is meaty because it does tease out many of those “political, ethical, cultural and emotional” factors that Savage intended to do. Meg’s single-minded focus on having a child, and the pressure this creates on others, is quietly interrogated. Aid-worker Anna’s discomfort with the exploitativeness of commercial surrogacy is teased out, as she faces reassessing “the moral high ground, where she’d once felt so at home”. The financial, cultural and emotional implications for Mod are also genuinely explored.

However, the novel is also warm-hearted because it is non-judgemental. Our main characters aren’t perfect. Meg and Anna, in particular, have their sisterly squabbles, tensions and fallings-out, but their disagreements aren’t bitter, and they both “put their foot in it” at times. More importantly, though, Savage leaves it to the reader to consider the issues and decide where we stand, and why.

Finally, underpinning all this is the writing. Mother of Pearl, which is logically divided into three parts – Preconception, Gestation, Afterbirth – is an accessible novel. The alternating perspectives are easy to follow, the pacing is good, and the writing flows well. There are some perfect descriptions, like

Anna recoiled like a sea anemone poked with a stick. She was fixed to the rock face; everything moved around her.

but they are not overdone in a novel for which the narrative is the driving force. I was concerned for a while that Meg and Nate were too good to be true, given the stresses they’d been under for years, but Savage injected enough little cracks to reassure me that they hadn’t stepped out of a romance novel. Finally, there’s the perfectly apposite pearl motif, which is also handled with a light touch.

Mother of Pearl, then, respects the complexity of its “issue” without becoming polemical. In so doing, it discourages judgement where compassion should prevail, and yet is clear-eyed about the realities that make surrogacy so problematical. A good choice for my first book of 2021.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) also appreciated this book.

Challenge logo

Angela Savage
Mother of Pearl
Transit Lounge, 2019
318pp.
ISBN: 9781925760354

* Thanks to Lisa for providing the link to this post.

Yarra Valley Writers Festival 2020 (online):  If I tell you I’m going to have to kill you (Crime panel)

This is my second report of the sessions I attended of the first Yarra Valley Literary Festival. I hope to write up more, but you can also check Lisa’s blog for her posts. She did not, however, attend Christos Tsiolkas – see my post – nor this crime panel. Like Lisa, I really read crime, but I am interested in the genre as a form of literature, and I was very interested in these particular writers.

Crime panel

Festival director Michael Veitch introduced the panel, appropriately, as a cabal of crime-writers. It comprised Robert Gott (who didn’t make it, for technical reasons, until quite late), Emma Viskic and Jock Serong, with Angela Savage convening, again. Good on her. Again, I had quite a bit of breaking up in my reception.

I enjoyed the panel immensely. Savage, a crime-writer herself, was spot on with the questions, and the panelists were both thoughtful and entertaining. It turned out that they – with Sulari Gentil – had travelled to the USA as a sort of Aussie crime roadshow called On the Run: Australian Crime Writers in America. More on that later, but their familiarity with each other meant that they related well on this panel.

Why crime?

Viskic said that, before publishing her first novel, she’d written two manuscripts – her burn-upon-death novels. The the problem was they were boring. The only bits that worked were the things she really likes about crime novels – the dark things.

Ex-criminal lawyer Serong said he didn’t gravitate to crime, and doesn’t see his writing as “a genre exercise”. But crime, he said, comprises “a great reservoir of human drama and characters”. He has an ambivalent relationship to crime, and is never sure whether he is writing it. Rules of backyard cricket has been described as “very noir”, he said, but On the Java Ridge is “very much about crime”.

He shared Gary Disher’s description of crime fiction “as a social barometer” which Viskic leapt onto, saying that crime offers “a great way of exploring what is right or wrong in society”. She was very funny about her own fascination with how to do crime!

Serong said his main driver is the exploration of character – and particularly of who Australians are. He said that we Australians have done well with COVID because, despite our seeing ourselves as larrikins, we are in fact “very compliant”!! Haha, I loved this. It’s helped, I think, that we’ve had coherent leadership, presenting us with a vision about what we’re aiming for – but he has a point!

What makes Australian crime fiction Australian – besides the setting?

Serong said that Aussies are doing crime differently to other countries: we are bringing indigeneity into our stories, and are exploring Australian identity in terms of how far you can push the Australian character.

He then said that outsiders would probably say landscape is what differentiates our crime. However, now we are seeing more crime set in cities and suburbs, which doesn’t reach the overseas market so well.

Viskic said that her work encompasses rural and urban landscapes, and settler and indigenous culture, that she’s drawn to urban and small town settings. She particularly likes the latter because it’s “more claustrophobic, more like family” which highlights her deaf detective Caleb’s outsiderness. She said she was always going to cover “black-white” stories. She’s not indigenous, but has indigenous family. She admitted that it’s a fraught thing to do, but it felt “cowardly not to do it”, like creating “terra nullius” all over again. Also, she said, Koori people, like deaf people, have been denied language and culture.

Why use fictional settings?

Serong’s first novel has a fictional setting, from “pure ignorance”. He thought a novel had to be fiction! His later books are all set in real places. He talked about research for Preservation which is set in a real place: the challenge of knowing how the rivers were then, which birds were there then, and of conveying the complex way Yuin people moved across the landscape versus his shipwreck survivors who just headed to Sydney, keeping the ocean on the left!

Viskic said that she fictionalises place for creative freedom. Once you name a place, specificity, which is important in writing, has to be right. She rarely uses fact in her fiction. But there is also the privacy reason, to avoid people feeling they know or can identify characters.

Series vs stand-alone?

Viskic always planned her Caleb novels to be a short tight series of three to five books, because events in the novels have consequences for characters, and she wanted her characters to grow over the novels. She’s coming to the end of this series, but was relieved to realise that she can come back and do another Caleb series later.

She also said that her novels can be read on two levels: the plot level, but you can also deep dive into the whys and wherefores. She’s less interested in who done it, and more in why and what happened after.

Serong, on the other hand, had not considered a series because he tends to jump around conceptually. However, Preservation is going to be the first of a trilogy, because there are more stories to tell about this 50-year period in Bass Strait history. It’s not a traditional crime novel, but colonialism could be seen as a high level crime. Stealing an entire continent is one of the great heists of all time (and it is accompanied by smaller criminal acts). There were moments of Eden, he said, when we could have made better decisions but we keep missing those opportunities. (Like, I thought to myself, the Government’s out-of-hand rejection of the Voice to Parliament!)

On the Run: Australian Crime Writers in America

At this point Robert Gott (who had convened an earlier panel) managed to join us, and the conversation turned to the crime roadshow, but look, I think I will save that for its own post. I’ll just say that Gott said it was Sulari Gentill’s idea, and that when she posed the idea the rest of them “complacently said, sure, whatever”.  However, Gentill pushed on, they obtained an Australia Council grant, and off they went.

Savage commented that it was a real coup to pull off this trip, and its success has paved the way for more. It was the first of its kind but they don’t want it to be the last, they’d like to see it as “an inevitability”.

Q&A

I didn’t record all the questions but there were questions about the relationship between crime and real life. Serong, ex-lawyer remember, said he was constantly amazed at what people get themselves into. Books and screen lag far behind real life, he said. On the other had, said Viskic, in real life you don’t have to be credible. Ridiculous crimes occur. However, in fiction, things have to be believable and motives have to be clear. People don’t tolerate much in the way of coincidences for example.

Gott added that real criminals are mostly boring, not very smart, dull-witted, so the crime is more interesting than the criminal. The implication was that fictional crime is more about character.

There was a question regarding whether Australian crime is in danger of going down the ultra-violent American route. Serong thinks not. We don’t have the guns for a start. Savage mentioned here Serong’s Staunch Prize win, noting that you can write riveting crime without including horrible acts of violence against women.

Savage also said that all of them have strong women in their work. She wondered whether this was particularly Australian, or just because of our time?

What do you think?

From Yarra Valley Writers Festival 2020 (Online)
9 May 2020, 9:30 AM – 7:30 PM
Livestreamed

Yarra Valley Writers Festival 2020 (online): Road to Damascus (Christos Tsiolkas with Angela Savage)

Book coverToday I attended several sessions of the first Yarra Valley Literary Festival, which the organisers turned around and converted to an online event with the arrival in our lives of COVID-19. I plan to write up a couple more sessions over the next week, when time permits, but you can also check Lisa’s blog for her posts.

I was looking forward to this session, because Damascus is my current read. I also wanted to see interviewer Angela Savage (whom I’ve reviewed here, and who comments here every now and then) because she is such an engaged writer, herself, as well as a supporter of writers.

Now, I must say that although I’ve really liked the two Tsiolkas novels I’ve read, I was not really looking forward to reading Damascus. Biblical times are not something I gravitate to, and I had heard that the novel contains quite a bit of violence. However, although Damascus does indeed start with something violent – the stoning of an adulterous woman – I was engaged immediately. The violence was neither gratuitous nor laboured, and Tsiolkas’ writing just got me in (again). I’ve read about a third of the novel and the subject matter, the origins of Christianity, is keeping me interested, because I’ve started to realise why it is worth reading. Tsiolkas is focusing particularly on Christianity’s commitment to equality or egalitarianism. Given the way organised Christianity seems to have lost much of its way in our times, it seems a good time to consider its founding values.

So, the conversation, but with the proviso that I did miss bits due to much of it being broken up by connection/transmission problems somewhere.

I’ll start by saying it was a lovely conversation, held between two people who obviously know each other well. That’s one of the lovely things about these writers festivals – you get to see the camaraderie that exists between some writers, and discover some of the ways they support each other. In this case, it came out that Savage had read some of Tsiolkas’ drafts and had had discussed them with him. She praised him for the time he takes with his work, for the way he honours his art.

The first questions explored some of the novel’s background. Tsiolkas said he’d spent five to six years on Damascus, and was terrified when it came out because it is quite different from anything he’s done before. However, he’s fortunate, he said, to have a supportive publisher in Jane Palfreyman, albeit she too was nervous about this one!

While he doesn’t call himself a Christian now, he did grow up with Christianity. He was interested in how much of what we know about Christianity has come through the interpretation of Saul/Paul, and he talked about his interest in Paul, from his adolescent understandings of being rejected by an admonishing Paul to his more mature comprehension when he returned to Paul after a personal crisis. That Paul, he realised, had suffered too. He said that (Biblical) Paul’s aim was to teach people how to live while “waiting for the kingdom” or eternity (which he thought was going to happen any day now.) For Tsiolkas, this has translated to “am I really leading the life that will enrich me?

From here Savage asked him about his characterisation of Paul.

Tsiolkas talked about his research. Saul/Paul was a Jew who left his faith to follow a strange scandalous religion. Tsiolkas talked about exploring the differences and similarities between Paul’s world and ours, and the challenge of finding his own way to Paul. He knew he wasn’t writing a hagiography, because the reality is that we are human. What is remarkable about the Christian story, he said, and what the Greeks and Romans could not understand, is the fact that through Jesus the sacred becomes human. However, the book also wasn’t going to be “a kicking in the guts”. It also wasn’t intended to be heretical or blasphemous (though some might see it that way!)

He needed to give Paul a battle, and so we have in the book sins like lust, greed, vanity, pride.

This brought us to the question a novelist begins with. For Damascus it was what was it in the Christian belief system that changed the world?

Savage then asked him about the novel’s structure. She loves, she said, how he structures his novels – and if you know me as a reader, you will know that structure is something that fascinates me. I have read enough of the novel to notice its non-chronological, four-points-of-view structure – which Savage called a “roving point of view” – so I was keen to hear his answer.

Tsiolkas said that structure is important to him as a novelist. It provides him with a blueprint which stops him getting lost. Voice and structure are the first things he thinks about. He was lucky with Paul’s voice, because of Paul’s letters. The three other voices are:

  • Lydia, representing the history of female participation in the church, something that was later wiped away. (Lydia, from a dye-making family, appears in the book of Acts as the first woman Paul brings to the new religion.) Tsiolkas talked about how he had wanted the female voice to be a slave, given Christianity was largely reviled because it accepted slaves, but he couldn’t find the voice and had no models from his research to draw on. He emphasised what a radical moment this acceptance of slaves was, and, as I have already noticed in my reading, he said that the novel’s refrain, “the first shall be last, the last shall be first”, makes this point. Anyhow, he struggled until suddenly Lydia came to him in the early hours one morning, and he just started writing her. I love stories like that.
  • Thomas, representing the doubter that he wanted in the novel because he, too, is a doubter. He chose Thomas from gospel of John, because, like Thomas, he doesn’t believe Christ was resurrected. Tsiolkas believes there is no eternal kingdom, that working out how to live a good life has to be worked out here and now. This idea offers another direction in which the church could have gone.
  • Timothy was Paul’s companion in the Bible. His father was pagan Greek and his mother Jewish, so he embodies “between world-ness”.

Savage, noting that it’s not a blasphemous book because it has such a respect for the values, asked about its reception. Tsiolkas said the way people have engaged and have wanted to have a conversation about it has been heartening. He’s been “blown away” by people’s generosity in responding to it.

There was a Q&A but I’m going to end on Tsiolkas’ wonderful answer to the question about his personal faith, because it’s an answer that is more broadly applicable I think. He said that the only answer is to hold doubt and faith together. If you know me, you’ll know that this sort of almost paradoxical answer suits me to a T.

From Yarra Valley Writers Festival 2020 (Online)
9 May 2020, 9:30 AM – 7:30 PM
Livestreamed

Monday musings on Australian literature: Angela Savage and setting in fiction

Angela Savage, The dying beach

I have several ideas for my next few Monday Musings, but another one popped up on the weekend as I was perusing my Twitter feed. I don’t check Twitter regularly enough – it’s impossible to keep up with all the social media sites don’t you think? – but when I do I regularly find a treasure or two. Anyhow, this tweet was from Angela Savage promoting the short piece “Take me to a different land” that she wrote for the Desert Nights, Rising Stars Writers Conference being held next month at the Virginia G Piper Centre for Creative Writing at Arizona State University. This is an annual conference for “writers, readers, and lovers of literature”, though it seems to me that the main focus is on writers, as it describes itself as devoted to “the science and art of creative writing, including world building, plot/narrative structure, and character development to more specialized topics like writing about climate change, working with different cultures, and pulling material from fairy tales and myth”.

Saguaro, near Tucson

Beautiful saguaro, near Tucson. (Just because I can!)

I was inspired to delve further for a few reasons: I’m interested in anything to do with the process of writing fiction; I wanted to know what Angela Savage had to say having enjoyed her crime novel The dying beach (my review); and, less relevant to this post, I love Arizona!

Now, setting is one of those aspects of fiction that readers often discuss. And, in fact, Savage starts her piece by quoting a reader from a rejection letter she received for her first Thailand-set novel, Behind the night bazaar:

I didn’t really feel that I had been taken to Thailand… I think there needs to be more of a sense of the sights and smells of Thailand, of being taken to a different land.

Savage says that at the time she was writing the novel she’d been living in SE Asia for six years, including 18 months in Thailand. She realised that it had become too familiar to her. She needed, she said, to step back and remember what it was like when she first arrived, and “try to conjure the little things that made the place unique”. She describes the process she went through to give that first novel the feeling of Thailand, and then says that for her later Thailand-set novels she’s returned to the country “with the express purpose of conducting fieldwork to inform my fiction”.

She goes on to say that as well as working on conveying “the sensory texture of different locations—the sights, smells, sounds, tastes and touch”, she “walks the streets in the shoes” of her characters, “imagining the landscape as they would see it, based on their state of mind.” Her aim in doing this is to closely relate the setting to the character. She recognises that a “strong sense of place” can transport readers, “adding to the pleasure and excitement of reading” but that the writer’s challenge is to ensure place enhances the story, rather than be a distraction.

I’ve written about setting and place a few times on this blog. In one post, I talked of this sensory aspect, saying that “my favourite descriptions are sensory, enabling me to feel and see the place and its impact on the characters”. This is largely what Savage is talking about here, isn’t it?

In another post I reported on a panel with the 2011 Prime Minister’s Literary Award winners. The chair, Caroline Baum, asked fiction winner Stephen Daisley about writing on place. She said that roughly 50% of authors writing about foreign places say they must visit a place to write about it, while the other half argue that this isn’t necessary. Daisley admitted that he’d not visited all the places he’d written about in Traitor, resulting in Baum asking how one can write about a place without visiting it. Daisley’s answer was Google!

Author Nigel Featherstone, was asked, in an interview he offered to my blog, about his writing on landscape in his novel, Remnants. He said

Even today, as I drive around the Southern Tablelands, I’m struck by the character of the landscape, its moods, its reticence, but always the amplification of self. As a writer, I’m interested in place as character as much as I am in human beings as character.

So, that’s what some authors say. What do readers say?

Commenting during a discussion of my 2011 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards post, Louise (A Strong Belief in Wicker) wrote:

But if an author chooses to set a story in a real place, and they name it, then I think they should get it right. I want the details to be right, and if they aren’t (and I notice that they’re not, that’s another big step) then it spoils my enjoyment of the rest of the story. I don’t necessarily mean it to, but it just does.

Regular commenter on my blog, Meg, agrees, commenting on my recent Spotlight on Georgia Blain post that:

I do prefer factual detail about people and places. When I read fiction I want to believe what the author is telling me. I don’t want to have to question something I know to be different.

And then just a few days ago, John (Musings of a Literary Dilettante) commented on Lisa (ANZlitLovers) post on Bernhard Schlink’s latest novel, Woman on the stairs. He agreed with Lisa’s criticism of the book, saying:

Thank God – I’m not alone! I found this dull too, and very poorly edited. For example: when the narrator says he loves the botanical garden in Sydney, he says it is bordered by a cathedral to the north and by the Opera House to the south. Wrong! It’s the Opera House to the *north*, the cathedral to the *south*…

And finally, Cally73 (a GoodReads reviewer) commented on the abovementioned Stephen Daisley’s Traitor that:

A little more explanation of the New Zealand setting would have been beneficial – as a New Zealander, I was able to work out where it was set, but those unfamiliar with the geography of NZ may find it difficult.

Oh dear, and that’s a place he has been to!

What I sense here – based on both the few examples here and more conversations over the years – is that readers can be very critical if they think authors have got the “facts” about place wrong, whilst for authors, the focus is more on the “sense” of the place and whether it serves their purposes. Many know they will be picked up if they get the “facts” wrong, but that’s not their focus. For authors who like doing research, it’s not a big issue, but for those who don’t it’s probably safer, as Louise above implies, to create a fictional setting, even if it’s based on a real place. Call Canberra by another name, and readers can go with the flow – but that doesn’t help of course if the issues the author wants to explore are place-centric (such as the shrimp-farming industry in Angela Savage’s The dying beach.)

I’d love to be a fly on the wall when setting is discussed at the conference. What issues will concern the authors most?

Angela Savage, The dying beach (Review)

Angela Savage, The dying beach

Courtesy: Text Publishing

When I received Angela Savage’s novel The dying beach out of the blue last year as a review copy, I didn’t put it high in my list of reading priorities. I had – and still have – a pile of books waiting patiently, and I rarely (never say never) read crime novels. However, two things changed my mind. One is that Christos Tsiolkas dedicated Barracuda to Savage, and the other is that this year, for the first time, I will visit Thailand, which is the novel’s setting. So, I read it!

The dying beach is apparently Savage’s third Jayne Keeney novel. Jayne is a Private Investigator, an expat Australian living in Bangkok. Like many female PIs, she’s gutsy, hard-living, resourceful, somewhat of an outsider, and rather inclined to bristle if her independence is questioned. (Perhaps this latter is not confined to female PIs, but can be said of many women working for a living in a male dominated environment.) In this, her third outing, she’s holidaying in Krabi with her new (I believe) business and romantic partner, Rajiv, an expat Indian. They are a bit of an odd couple, but we all know about opposites attracting:

Jayne had never imagined she could find love with a man five years her junior, whose background was so different from her own. But Rajiv gave her a whole new way of viewing the world. As if he’d walked into her life and drawn back the curtain, revealing a window she hadn’t even known was there.

I love that image of “revealing a window she hadn’t even known was there”. Savage’s writing is pretty direct, keeping a good pace appropriate to its genre, but that doesn’t mean that it lacks lovely descriptions and turns of phrase. Indeed, the language is one of the delights of the book. Without disturbing her pacing, Savage regularly surprises with telling descriptions. This, for example, gives you a perfect picture of Jayne in full flight:

She was like an appliance without an off switch that kept accelerating under pressure until it threatened to short circuit.

The novel opens with a sort of prologue in which Sigrid, who doesn’t play an ongoing role in the novel, finds a body floating in the water at Princess Beach. Sigrid is surprised to discover that it’s the tour guide Pla whom she’d spoken to only that week. She notices some bruises around the neck suggesting Pla “did not die gently”. The novel proper then starts at Chapter 1 with Rajiv and Jayne in bed. It’s here (in the chapter not the bed!) that Savage provides us with the necessary background to their relationship, to where it stands at this point, and implies tensions that may play out in the future – as indeed they do. There is, in other words, a love story to this crime novel. At the end of this chapter they front up to the counter at Barracuda (surely a little homage to Christos Tsiolkas) Tours planning to book a tour with the “exceptional guide” they’d had a couple of days previously – the unlucky Pla, of course. And so the scene is set for their holiday to become another job, albeit unpaid, something that bothers the practical Rajiv but not our justice-seeking heroine.

I’m not going to write a lot more about the story, because it’s the sort of book people read for plot and surprises, and I don’t want to give them away. I will say though that it offers lovely insights into Thai character and culture. It is also unashamedly political with its plot revolving around the conflict between economic development and environmental degradation. The title itself refers to the fact that mass shrimp-farming results in the destruction of mangrove forests which in turn causes the beaches to “die”.

Savage also presents a critique of Australia, when she has Jayne contemplate why she is living in Thailand:

Truth was Jayne had long felt an outsider among her peers. Since her final year of high school, in fact, when she spent six tantalising months on a student exchange in France. When she returned home, her passion for the outside world met with a lack of interest, if not downright hostility – as though it was disloyal to find anywhere as attractive as Australia. […] For all that Australians like to boast about the national larrikin spirit, in reality only irreverence was tolerated. Unconventionality was not.

It’s a little didactic, but ouch! There is, unfortunately, some truth in this.

The final point I’d like to make relates to its narrative style. Having read several complex novels recently, that is, books with shifting points of view and intricate chronologies, I rather enjoyed reading something more straightforward. I say this, however, comparatively speaking, because The dying beach does not have a simple, linear chronology. Not only are there a few flashback chapters interspersed strategically through the book, but occasionally the narrative focus shifts from Jayne and her cohort to a couple of characters who appear to be implicated in at least some of the murders. The voice is essentially third person omniscient, though sometimes we seem to shift inside a character’s head. Savage does it well, and I enjoyed the change after the intensity of my recent reads.

The dying beach is a compelling page-turner that also makes some points about cultural difference and tolerance, the challenge of tourism, and the complexity of environmental management in developing countries. It achieves this without, to the best of my admittedly limited knowledge, deviating dramatically from the conventions of its genre. And that is a good thing, because the result is the sort of novel that could appeal to a cross-over audience. The challenge, though, is how to get readers, like me for example, to cross over.

awwchallenge2014Angela Savage
The dying beach
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2013
339pp.
Cover design: WH Chong
ISBN: 9781921922497

(Review copy supplied by Text Publishing)