REVIEW: CRIMSON DAWN BY FLEUR MCDONALD

CRIMSON DAWN

Author: Fleur McDonald
Allen & Unwin RRP $29.99
Review: Monique Mulligan

Crimson DawnOnce again Fleur McDonald gives a voice to issues facing people in the outback, with her latest release Crimson Dawn focusing on property management and retention, as well as other challenges of rural life. As seems to be the norm for McDonald, romance takes a back seat to the issues – it’s present, but it’s not the driving force of the story. Of course, the story’s more than that, with betrayal, family secrets and some dark goings-on rounding out the narrative.

Laura Murphy is the main voice for this latest novel. She’s facing the possible loss of the family property she’s inherited due to an unexpected claim from a long-lost family member; the news is a blow because Laura has spent years making her mark on the property, and now it looks as if it’s all going to be lost. For Laura, the farm, and the school she’s set up to teach young women the basics of property management, is like a shield protecting her from getting too close to any man after a painful experience some years earlier. Laura projects a strong image of self-reliance and confidence, but underneath the mask, she’s lonely.

Woven into Laura’s story is the back story of Thomas, her grandfather’s brother, who left Nambina and his surviving family behind after years of abuse. Readers gain an insight into a troubled young man who becomes a shearer and wool classer, but never makes peace with his family; it’s through his line that the claim is made on Nambina.

Crimson Dawn jumps between a number of time periods, beginning with Laura’s story and the end of her relationship and gradually jumping forward eight years; the parallel narrative of Thomas’s story also jumps several years at a time, particularly as his story wound down. I’m not sure that this worked so well for both narratives – the overall effect was a bit disjointed. I also felt that there was a big leap made in the development of Thomas’s character – from a troubled young boy who runs away from home but seems to come good under the mentorship of an older man, he ends up violent and with few redeeming features. While lingering effects of childhood abuse or war could plausibly have been responsible, his character development just didn’t ring true for me. I also didn’t really emotionally invest in the big argument that led to ongoing conflict between Laura and a neighbouring family (which included her ex-boyfriend) … it felt a bit contrived and just didn’t have the impact it should have had, probably because by this time I hadn’t really felt any connection to Laura. So, structurally, I had a few problems with the narrative in that it the pacing felt uneven and some of the character development felt rushed.

However, other aspects of the narrative were quite good. I enjoy reading about rural life and McDonald is particularly good at setting the scene and taking readers into the “every day” of rural living. From fencing and mustering to sheep drenching and shearing, from challenges like isolation and lack of services, she paints a picture of a life where determination and community is tantamount to success. In Crimson Dawn the notion of community is enhanced through Laura and Thomas’s stories – both end up accepting the help of others at some point, though interestingly, Thomas is quick to accept help (and later rejects it), while Laura finds it hard to accept help but comes to her senses in time. Crimson Dawn also depicts experiences many would associate with urban narratives – drug use and sex parties; McDonald emphasises that not only is rural life hard, it also isn’t immune to the darker side of life. That’s the other thing I like about McDonald’s work – in terms of the issues and setting, the rose coloured glasses are off and it feels very real. The same could be said about the characters in that there’s not a happy ending after for everyone in Crimson Dawn … and that’s how life is.

Overall, it’s a good read and I’m looking forward to more from McDonald. Available from good bookstores and Allen & Unwin. My copy was courtesy of Allen & Unwin.

Bookish treat: I’ve just made a batch of almond-choc chip blondies. Not very Aussie and probably a bit urban, but gee, they smelt so good as I was writing this!