Desert, picket fences both become a kind of prison
A strong sense of place is a vital characteristic of our national literary imagination. Whether it’s the outback, the bush, the beach or the city, place frames and shapes the stories we tell. It is something darker in two interesting Australian novels, Cassandra Austin’s All Fall Down and Rebekah Clarkson’s debut Barking Dogs. Here place is a stultifying prison, an antagonist to overcome.
All Fall Down is set in Mululuk, a fictional mining community in the South Australian desert, roughly an hour from Coober Pedy. The town is a desolate tract of dugouts and temporary houses and “red, endless red, and scurrying saltbush on top of it”.
The bulk of the action takes place one month after the mysterious collapse of a bridge that spanned a ravine dividing the town. A new bridge has been built in the interim, but authorities are keeping it closed for vague reasons. The residents of Mululuk are divided as they at- tempt to find the causes for the collapse. Was it sabotage, mechanical failure or divine intervention?
The novel contains some — forgive the pun — gaping plot holes. One month seems a short time to build and pave the second bridge. And would the building company begin construction without determining the cause of the collapse?
Despite these inconsistencies, All Fall Down is engaging and well-realised. It’s couched in the gothic sensibilities of writers such as Barbara Baynton and, more recently, Evie Wyld and Charlotte Wood.
Like them, Austin, who grew up in outback NSW, presents the landscape as a kind of malevolent force. The sun is a “reddened scar” or a “vicious open sore”, while the chasm itself is “a huge red, waterless wound”.
While the hard-bit naturalism sometimes strays towards the melodramatic (“The land who is a greedy son of a bitch and will take what she wants in her time-honoured fashion: death”), it provides an effective backdrop for the violent incidents that bookend the novel.
In the slow-burn lead-up to the dramatic finale, Austin skilfully juggles a number of plot threads involving a panoply of characters: Janice, who miraculously survived the collapse of the bridge; a gassy Franciscan monk and his disaffected teenage niece; an acerbic insurance investigator; and an alcoholic drifter who believes
Rebekah Clarkson traces a farming community’s transition to atomised outer suburbia