A wild ride, but a win­ner in the end

Dark Horse

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Anne Part­lon Anne Part­lon

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

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