A wild ride, but a winner in the end
By Honey Brown Michael Joseph, 273pp, $29.99
NO, Honey Brown’s new book is not a biography of Black Caviar but a cunningly devised romantic — some might say erotic — thriller. But more of that anon.
The story begins when 30-something equestrian Sarah Barnard decides to forgo Christmas lunch with the folks for a ride in the bush astride her beloved black mare, Tansy. Still reeling from a failed marriage and looming bankruptcy (her serial-cheat husband has squandered their riding school profits on a profligate lifestyle), she packs a few essential supplies, and a gun, and heads for the hills — in this case, the Mortimer Ranges somewhere in the Victorian high country.
But halfway up the mountain she and Tansy are nearly swept away in a flash flood. Having narrowly escaped with their lives, they take refuge at a deserted campsite where, presently, they are joined by another orphan of the storm, a handsome stranger nursing a knee injury.
Sarah, herself inexplicably battered and bruised, offers a helping hand but soon begins noticing odd little occurrences. Her mobile phone seems to have been tampered with and her gun is missing from its hiding place. Is the newcomer to blame or could someone else be responsible?
As wild weather sweeps across the ranges, cutting them off from the world below, Sarah and Heath forge an uneasy alliance in which the rules of engagement prove as mercurial as the elements. Can they overcome their suspicions of one another or will their fears push them, literally, over the edge?
A mood of mounting paranoia invests this intriguing but slow-moving meditation on love and betrayal, truth and justice. Victoriabased Brown enjoys manipulating characters and readers alike, and the latter will need their wits about them to adjust to the constantly shifting perspective. It’s a tactic encapsulated by the ambiguous title. Who exactly is the dark horse: Sarah, with her guilty secret, or the equally evasive Heath, anointed in mauvish prose by Sarah herself as the ‘‘ Gorgeous Young Dark Horse’’? Neither of the two principals is a reliable witness, and at least one of them may be mentally unstable. The fog, which obscures the landscape, symbolically expresses the characters’ confusion.
It’s not until the closing chapters that the clouds lift and the bigger picture emerges. But it’s a long time coming, and with most of the action confined to the mountainside there is a risk of diminishing returns. To her credit, Brown rises to the occasion, delivering the pay-off in what must rank as one of the most audacious and wholly unexpected twists in a popular novel of recent times.
Stripped of its tricks and tropes, however, this is standard chick-lit fare, perhaps a little better than average and, while highly contrived, well wrought. Brown is a clever and inventive storyteller, wringing every last ounce of suspense from her inverted plot. Her literary handling is less competent, afflicted as it is by the besetting sin of many contemporary writers: poor grammar. She is at her best when describing the Australian bush, although even here a smattering of jarring Americanisms weakens her authority. Similarly, her attempts to inject an erotic charge into the relationship between Sarah and Heath left this stony-hearted reader unmoved. The result is more harlequin fantasy than Fifty Shades of Grey.
On other occasions, when depicting violent or dramatic scenes, for example, her writing takes on a visceral quality, the literary equivalent of a high-definition movie experience and presumably influenced by that medium. Although cinematic effects can add an exciting note to the novel, they usually come at a price, and that is an absence of intellectual context. Apart from a passing cultural reference or three, the events could have taken place in a vacuum.
But I digress. It may be unfair to single out Brown for the faults of the many. Given its self-imposed handicaps, Dark Horse takes its fences in its stride and with aplomb, providing an entertaining and often gripping read in the process. Author of the award-winning 2009 novel Red Queen, Brown may well be the dark horse of her own imagining, but only time will tell if she is a stayer.
Honey Brown delivers an audacious, unexpected twist in her new novel