Dirt Town by Hayley Scrivenor won several awards before it was even published, taking out the Kill Your Darlings (literary magazine) Unpublished Manuscript Award and being shortlisted for Penguin’s Literary Prize. And it’s certainly worthy of those accolades, in addition to the glowing reviews I’ve been seeing on social media.
Scrivenor’s writing is stunning and her character development and story arc (here) perfectly paced. She manages to offer readers both a sense of urgency – in the search for a missing girl – but also recreate that small-town (claustrophobic) laconic pace so you can feel the town, its occupants and secrets, dragging you down.Dirt Town
by Hayley Scrivenor
Published by Macmillan Australia
Genres: Crime Fiction, Police Procedural
On a sweltering Friday afternoon in Durton, best friends Ronnie and Esther leave school together. Esther never makes it home.
Ronnie's going to find her, she has a plan. Lewis will help. Their friend can't be gone, Ronnie won't believe it.
Detective Sergeant Sarah Michaels can believe it, she has seen what people are capable of. She knows more than anyone how, in a moment of weakness, a person can be driven to do something they never thought possible.
Lewis can believe it too. But he can't reveal what he saw that afternoon at the creek without exposing his own secret.
Five days later, Esther's buried body is discovered.
I adored 12 year old Ronnie – the first of our narrators. The missing girl, Esther is her best friend. In reality she’s her only friend… though another kid, Lewis, hangs with the pair at times. She reminded me of a young girl in another recent (much-loved) read, The Family String. An earnest young thing with good intentions though still occasionally finds herself misbehaving without meaning to do so.
Here Scrivenor offers several narrators. All women with the exception of Lewis. And she offers up each day – because we’re only travelling alongside our storytellers for about 4 days – from multiple viewpoints. I had no problem with this and found it quite clever. However… I had to put the book aside and return to it the following day and found myself confused. I started where I left off and found there to be chunks missing from the narrative (not remembering that I’d find out those details from someone else’s account of events) and I couldn’t work out who I supposed to most ‘engage’ with. It’d felt like Ronnie and police officer Sarah (as our lead protagonists) when I was first reading it, but coming back to it fresh really threw me.
So… I had to re-read a significant portion of the book when I returned to it, but once I was in the groove I was again well and truly ‘there’. I’d be interested if anyone else experienced the sense of the pieces not quite fitting together and timing being off, or if it only happened to me because I put it aside (and out of my head) for a day, and had to reacclimate myself.
All of that being said, I loved this book. Scrivenor’s writing is beautiful. Her prose incredibly eloquent. I found entire paragraphs to be poignant, marking many I thought were insightful and needing to be remembered, or ones I wanted to reference in this review.
It’s impossible now to unlink my memories of Esther from each other. Like train cars with their couplings soldered together, each memory of her brings with it another one, surging forward, on and on in a long, clattering line. Since we were small, she’d been there, as important and unremarked as the house you grow up in. p 9
I should also mention that the town itself is one of the narrators, or at least an omnipresent ‘we’ talking on behalf of the town. Giving us context; information that both everyone and no one knows.
I struggled a little with some of the characters unsure if I needed to remember who they were, but suspect Scrivenor introduces and references so many because it’s a reminder how connected and incestuous small towns or communities can be.
The knowledge would make her feel the crushing weight of what it was to live in such a small town. Everything and everyone touching everything else. p 266
I wonder if we’ll meet Sarah again. We’re given a fair bit of backstory with some lack of closure so it’d be possible to rejoin Sarah in her next case. (And I’d certainly enjoy it.) Interestingly Scrivenor gives us closure with our current cast of characters and – though this is set in 2001 – we revisit some in the present. And I loved that again she often writes about ‘what is to come’ from that omnipresent all-knowing and seeing voice.
This is a wonderful book and it occurs to me there have been so many outstanding Australian novels this year already and we’re not quite six months in. And so many wonderful debut novels, we can only imagine what’s yet to come.
Dirt Town by Hayley Scrivenor was published in Australia by Pan Macmillan and is now available.
I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes.