REVIEW: BAY OF FIRES BY POPPY GEE

BAY OF FIRES

Author: Poppy Gee 
Hachette RRP $29.99
Review: Monique Mulligan 

Cover of Bay of Fires by Poppy GeeA murder mystery in an isolated, apparently benign holiday spot … sounds like a good location for a tense read, right? As it turned out, location, or a sense of place was one of the stronger features of Poppy Gee’s debut novel, Bay of Fires. The novel is set in the same place Gee has spent summers with her family for many years; it’s evident that this is a place she knows well and is close to her heart. In this novel, she explores what would happen if the relative peace was shattered by a murder; how would this affect the tight-knit community?

The Bay of Fires (it is a real place) is deep in a national park on the east coast of Tasmania. To many, its seclusion offers an idyllic holiday spot. In the fictional setting, Gee describes a place consisting of a dozen shacks beside a lagoon, as well as a small campground and a shop. Many of the holiday-makers are regulars and there is a marked divide between the shack-dwellers and the campers. Each sticks to their own. Years of coming to the same place has led to an intimacy rather like a holiday romance – they practically live in each others’ pockets for a few weeks, with bake-outs and barbecues, and then go back to their own lives until the next year. They gossip about the newcomers and each other – everyone is fair game.

Sarah Avery has been coming to the bay since she was a child. Now an adult, she has returned, having left her boyfriend and her job. That’s cause for gossip itself, but Sarah keeps to herself, refusing to share the details, alternately engaging in self-destructive behaviour (drinking too much, sleeping with a 17-year-old boy) and healthier albeit reclusive behaviour (fishing, walking and swimming) as a hoped-for distraction from her memories. When the bikini-clad body of a backpacker washes ashore, Sarah has something else to think about. It’s all anyone can talk about. Was she murdered? If so, by whom? Why? Is the murderer still around? The trouble is, all this anxiety (and the fact that she found the body) is stirring up Sarah’s memories rather than distracting her. All she wants to do is keep her secrets safe and try to start over … but can she with all this going on?

That’s a good question considering the discovery has attracted the attention of the media. Journalist Hall Flynn has been sent to investigate what’s happened and deliver breaking news to his editor. From a media perspective, it’s a “good” story – backpacker apparently murdered a year after another teenage girl went missing. Plenty of room for sensationalism there. When Hall and Sarah cross paths they soon realise they can help each other with the case, especially when the community turns in on itself. But will their focus shift to the other secrets they are hiding? And will this case help them discover things about themselves?

Bay of Fires is quite different from most mystery novels I’ve read. I didn’t find that the tension came from the mystery itself, but more from the people and places within the novel. It wasn’t a suspenseful, edge-of-the-seat that had me cringing, shutting my eyes or holding my breath. No, this one had a menace of a more understated type. It came from the community itself and the way the people turned on each other and pointed fingers, even husbands and wives. It came from the friction between campers and shack-dwellers – at one point one of the characters refers to the campers as “revolting” and it’s clear the feeling is mutual. And it came from the bay itself, with its isolation, suffocating midsummer heat, snakes, stone fish and possible lurking sharks. Gee takes the reader right into the bay, into the seething undercurrents, and into the rancid heat of a frightened community. I’ve never been to the Bay of Fires, but it reminds me of similar places I’ve been as a child and an adult. I remember swimming in lagoons, carefree and sunburned; I remember driving down remote roads to isolated, windblown harbours that have challenged me with their inward feel. In many ways, Gee’s writing made me feel the essence of coastal Australia. As I said at the start, creating an atmosphere was one of the stronger aspects of this book.

The characters have a typically Australian feel and wouldn’t be out of place on any Aussie TV series. They’re the kind of people you would find in many small communities – the alpha family, the outcasts, the loner, the losers, the gossipers, the boozers, the surfers (well, maybe you wouldn’t find many of them in the outback). Of the minor characters, Pamela, Don and Jane had more of a ‘voice’, but each of the minor characters added depth to the story. Of the major characters, Sarah was flawed, but interesting. Sometimes I didn’t really like her ‘voice’ – in fact, it almost put me off reading it in the early stages – but I came to understand her more over time. I liked Hall. I could relate to him because I’ve been a journalist who has questioned the value of sensationalising stories, just as he did. He seemed like a decent person.

Underlying the mystery are themes including domestic violence, marital relationships and career worries, all of which add to the tense atmosphere. Gee has delivered a very well-written book with striking and rich imagery, and interesting, recognisable characters. However, the writing style leans more to the literary side and will deter some mystery-lovers. If you are looking for a typical mystery novel, Bay of Fires is not it because the mystery really is secondary to the book’s literary nature. It is a slower read (imagine the lethary you feel when the heat is stifling – that’s the kind of read this is) and for many it won’t be what they expect or even want. But for those who love to sucked into a place and feel what is going on, rather than just be told about it, then this book is for you.

Available from good bookstores and Hachette Australia. This copy was courtesy of Hachette.

Bookish treat: Fish and chips wrapped in paper and eaten picnic style.