Rid­dles col­lide in scenic ru­ral town

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Thuy On

On the first day of sum­mer in 1993, a man in his 50s sat down in front of a cu­rio shop on the main road of a lit­tle coun­try town in NSW and sighed his last breath. Dressed as he was in oddly for­mal at­tire, in­ap­pro­pri­ate for the heat, there was a sym­me­try in the sit­u­a­tion: wit­ness this seem­ing relic from an­other era ex­pir­ing next to an­tique store. There seemed to be no ex­pli­ca­ble cause be­hind the death of the im­pec­ca­bly groomed and debonair gen­tle­man.

He was out­wardly com­posed, with no signs of dis­tress, dis­com­fort or bleed­ing. As well as the lack of al­co­hol in his sys­tem, there was also no ID — and even more cu­ri­ous, every la­bel from every piece of cloth­ing he wore had been scrupu­lously re­moved.

That same day, 21-year-old Benita (Benny) Miller also turns up in Cedar Val­ley, 2½ hours from Syd­ney. Young and “very green like a new shoot of grass in a big old field”, Benny moves into a charm­ing weath­er­board cot­tage be­long­ing to Odette Fisher, an old friend of her mother’s.

Vi­vian Alice Moon had only re­cently died but Benny had very lit­tle con­tact with, or in­deed even knowl­edge of her elu­sive par­ent. She is here to learn more about her mum. These two ap­par­ent mys­ter­ies: the death of the man and the life of the woman, will be­come plaited in this sec­ond novel by Holly Throsby.

This is not a book for those who like gal­lop­ing nar­ra­tives that by­pass the finer de­tails in the race to the de­noue­ment. No, Cedar Val­ley takes the scenic route op­tion. It’s a leisurely stroll, with stopovers to tarry with the neigh­bours to ex­change daily both­ers about the weather. Af­ter all, Cedar Val­ley, though small, is a very busy com­mu­nity, host to not just one but two ri­val book clubs, as well as monthly gath­er­ings of devo­tees of ce­ram­ics, fish­ing, sew­ing, and quilt­ing.

Nonethe­less, this strange mat­ter of a stranger per­ish­ing so abruptly on their turf acts as a klaxon in this sleepy vil­lage. Gos­sip and spec­u­la­tion are rife while the lo­cals down beers at the pub and munch on the de­li­cious “world’s best pies” on of­fer.

It’s cer­tainly a head-scratcher for the hand­ful of po­lice of­fi­cers whose cases in the area hith­erto in­volved theft of farm ma­chin­ery, spare parts, fuel and sheep.

Soon, the cold case of the Somer­ton Man is re­heated. He died in Ade­laide decades ear­lier, in 1948, but his death shows re­mark­able sim­i­lar­i­ties to that of the un­for­tu­nate Cedar Val­ley de­ceased.

The slow and teas­ing man­ner in which Throsby twins to­gether these two cases, sep­a­rated by time and place, is in­ge­nious. There were in­trigu­ing flavours in the orig­i­nal death: a pocket note linked with a po­etry book writ­ten by a 12th-cen­tury Per­sian as­tronomer ( The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam) and some baffling code that may or may not be es­pi­onage-re­lated.

But fancy aside, the ba­sic ques­tions are yet to be re­solved in the new in­ves­ti­ga­tion. Was it sui­cide or homi­cide? Were sim­i­lar­i­ties be­tween the two men co­in­ci­den­tal or cir­cum­stan­tial? As De­tec­tive Sergeant Sim­mons mut­ters with un­mit­i­gated ex­as­per­a­tion, “It’s hard to know how far to chase the goose.”

Read­ers ex­pect­ing ev­ery­thing to be ti­died up by the last page will be frus­trated by the spa­ces de­lib­er­ately left un­filled. This is not in it­self a prob­lem; Cedar Val­ley is canny enough to trust you to come up with likely back­sto­ries about the af­fairs of the doomed pro­tag­o­nists in this beau­ti­fully in­ter­twined fact and fic­tion.

Throsby has a fine way with all char­ac­ters, whether pri­mary or se­condary, and is able to pin down in just a few choice words their in­nate driv­ing force. There’s Cora Franks, for in­stance, the pushy and over­ween­ing owner of the cu­rio shop. How ter­ri­bly ap­po­site that she hap­pens to be “fes­tooned with cameo brooches”; and of course the shy and earnest Benny is the type of per­son who finds “so­lace in re­spon­si­bil­ity”. De­spite the kind wel­come of strangers, her youth and vul­ner­a­bil­ity are un­der­lined as she goes about try­ing not to cre­ate dis­cord in the gen­tle rhythms of this coun­try town. She may look star­tlingly like her mother but in per­son­al­ity she is wan by com­par­i­son. The shine and vi­tal­ity of Vi­vian Alice Moon are re­mem­bered by a fair few of the val­ley’s older in­hab­i­tants — but, alas, not b by her own griev­ing child. Benny saw her mother in her child­hood only fleet­ingly, and af­ter Vi­vian left, it was as though she had “drained all the light from the world.”

There are echoes of Throsby’s de­but novel, Good­wood — also set in a small ru­ral town, in the same early 1990s pe­riod and also in­volv­ing sev­eral mys­ter­ies — to the ex­tent that this book can be seen as a com­pan­ion vol­ume. The au­thor’s singer-song­writer back­ground is ev­i­dent in the easy ban­ter, un­fussy speech and the con­trol and pac­ing of the nar­ra­tive. The play­ful na­ture of the de­tec­tive work not­with­stand­ing, Cedar Val­ley is a sweet and sad ode to loss in all it guises — not least for Benny, who, faced with grow­ing up on the dark side of the moon, is un­able to bask in the cool lus­tre of her mother. is books editor of The Big Is­sue.

Holly Throsby

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.