- Croc Country, by Kerry McGinnis. Michael Joseph. $32.99.
This new novel by a popular Australian writer is a clever mystery set in the tropical north. There are cover-ups, corrupt police, and a heroine trying to find herself after a personal tragedy. Add a surprising touch of romance, and you have an exciting and entertaining read.
Tilly, whose point of view and story is the centre of the novel, has lost her husband and child in a boating accident. She has taken a role as a house-keeper for a group of conservationists on a former pastoral property, and although her loss is always with her, has gradually created a new life. The novel shows ghosts of the past erupting into her fragile existence, plunging her back into this tragedy, after making her question her hold on reality.
The first sections of the novel unfold in quite a leisurely way, introducing both the landscape and the characters with whom Tilly lives. Gradually, the pace builds, until the thrilling climax of the novel, where violence erupts. Will Tilly be able to navigate the danger? Is she strong (and lucky) enough to survive? By the time the novel's crisis arrives, McGinnis has made her character matter to the reader, and we are fully invested in her fate.
The descriptions of the landscape and animals in Croc Country are memorable. From the brolga who will never return to the wild due to injuries caused by an illegal trap, to the crocodile who resides in the river near a tourists' camp, to huge pillars of rock withstanding erosion, McGinnis is expert at conjuring up a part of the country that many Australians do not know.
This Gulf Country setting, and the people working to protect the environment, are inseparable from the crimes that are being committed.
The landscape itself sometimes seems to require effort to decipher. Tilly's role at work changes from that of housekeeper to trainee ranger, and this allows her to visit more of the environment around her. At the same time she becomes more involved in trying to decipher the criminal activities that are occurring on the land.
The question of identity is a central question here; the suppression of the individual demanded in some relationships, the adoption of false personae for various reasons, and the extent to which one can recreate oneself in a different location.
These concerns are deftly inserted into the plot, adding a level of complexity to the tale. The gradual possibility of a new chance at love for Tilly arises directly from the need for serious crimes to be investigated.
In clear, engaging prose, McGinnis has succeeded in creating a story of mystery, survival and the possibility of moving forward after a shattering loss.
- Penelope Cottier writes poetry as PS Cottier.