Desert, picket fences both be­come a kind of prison

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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

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