Winner of the 2009 John Llewllyn Rhys Prize, Evie Wyld’s debut novel first came to my attention with Kimbofo’s review back in December of last year. The beautiful art work on the dustjacket surely one of the best of 2009.   Since then the book has garnered further praise and now has a well-deserved place on the short list for the 2010 Orange Prize for Debut Fiction.

I don’t think I’ve ever read a book with such a strong evocation of place before. From the city, to the desert, to the sea, Australia sure comes across large, hot and dangerous. Deadly spiders, tiger sharks and bunyips combining forces to threaten the human race whereever it is seeking refuge from its own traumas: war, deadly disease, domestic violence.

The stories of Frank and Leon are told in alternating chapters. Frank’s is the contemporary tale and he is a man who has fled to his long-dead grandparents’ shack on the coast following the breakdown of his relationship. As his thoughts and memories come into focus, it appears that Frank is also estranged from his father. His girlfriend, a foster child,  cannot understand how he has tossed aside his family so casually.

What did his father do that was so unforgiveable she wants to know?  (As indeed do I – this didn’t resolve itself fully for me.) Her efforts at attempting to breach the rift trigger Frank into violence and from this she flees. Hence his flight to the shack where he seeks to drown his sorrows in drink and solitude. But life has other things in store for this emotional recluse – including hope in the form of a 7-year old older-than-her-years, Sally.

Leon’s parents are Jewish refugees, forced from their home during WWII. Leon’s father, in an act of gratitude to his adoptive country, volunteers for the Korean war. We never learn exactly what he saw or did during his time away but he returns a shattered man, incapable of staying with his wife and son. He leaves; his wife follows leaving Leon in charge of the family bakery. Until he is conscripted into the Vietnam war.  We follow Leon into the jungles of Vietnam and again Wyld creates a superb evocation of place.  Actions are barbaric and the fear is palpable but Leon is made of sterner stuff than his dad and it’s a post-war experience that ultimately shatters his nerves.  Like Frank, he cannot put words to his grief and seeks respite in drink and loose women.

There are other connections and parallels besides the emotional ones and it’s satisfying to discover them.   As is the insertion of a mysterious disappearance and the associated ratchetting up of tension.

I was reminded in many places of Keri Hulme’s The Bone People in particular the dependence on alcohol and  recurring domestic violence.  But Hulme’s novel is harsh, savage and unpalatable to many modern readers.  Wyld’s novel covers some of the same ground without stirring feelings of revulsion in the same way.  The brutality tempered by tenderness.  Leon’s cake figurines were a wonderful touch and I was immeasurably sad when they were washed away in the sea.

An impressive debut with just a couple of false notes. (See footnote.) That said, a definite keeper, and a novel I shall revisit if ever I get the opportunity to visit down under.   Now that I know how to spot a bunyip, I shall not be so afeared.

Footnote to self:  I didn’t believe the episode with June and I had to read one page 3 times before I understood how Leon woke in the house. (I’ve now decided that the textual fuzziness at this point is deliberate.  It’s the realit of Leon’s own confusion.)