Book review: The Cane by Maryrose Cuskelly

Saturday, February 19, 2022 Permalink

The Cane by Maryrose Cuskelly was an unexpected delight. Not because I didn’t think it would offer up a great mystery… which it did. Indeed it’s wonderfully atmospheric. Rural noir at its most noir-ish.

What enchanted me the most was the nostalgia this book brought with it. The blurb mentions the 1970s but I assumed it was going to be set in the present with some reflections on the past, when in fact… all of it is set in the 1970s and – as someone born at the end of the 1960s so in my formative years over the next decade or so – this brought back soooo many memories and Cuskelly effortlessly took me back to my childhood again and again.

Book review: The Cane by Maryrose CuskellyThe Cane
by Maryrose Cuskelly
Published by Allen & Unwin
on 01/02/2022
Source: Allen & Unwin
Genres: General Fiction, Thriller / Suspense
ISBN: 9781760879853
Pages: 336

Quala, a North Queensland sugar town, the 1970s.Barbara McClymont walks the cane fields searching for Janet, her sixteen-year-old daughter, who has been missing for weeks. The police have no leads.

The people of Quala are divided by dread and distrust. But the sugar crush is underway and the cane must be burned.

Meanwhile, children dream of a malevolent presence, a schoolteacher yearns to escape, and history keeps returning to remind Quala that the past is always present.

As the smoke rises and tensions come to a head, the dark heart of Quala will be revealed, affecting the lives of all those who dwell beyond the cane.

While being flooded with memories of everything from I Dream of Jeannie to Sunday night’s TV staple, The Wonderful World of Disney, bottled milk at school, roll-on flavoured lip gloss, the Tower Mill Motel in Brisbane and references to the school ‘port’ brought an enormous amount of authenticity to this read, it’s the atmospheric setting that really stands out.

Set amidst the cane fields in north Queensland Cuskelly manages to imbue a dark stillness into this story. A sense of menace that lingers over the Quala community; distrust, unease and fear.

Cuskelly offers us a number of narrators. The elderly Arthur, Connie and her daughter Essie – not yet a teenager, and a police officer who’s travelled up from Brisbane, Carmel. I found Essie’s story to be the most interesting and in many ways this felt like a coming-of-age story with a difference. She’s not on the precipice of adulthood as such. But of consciousness. Of understanding.

Arthur and Connie give us the backstory of the locals. Connie in particular, as the closest friend of Janet’s mother Barbara is torn between the need to move on with cane production and Barbara’s fruitless constant search of the fields.

Carmel gives us the outsider’s perspective. She picks up on some dodgy locals pretty quickly and is forgiving or accepting of them than those who’ve known them all of their lives.

Cuskelly’s prose flows with a casual storytelling ease. Her commentary often filled with insight and depth.

The children of Quala slip through the humid air like eels in mud. They don’t notice the close, damp heat. It is their natural habitat. They are mystified by the way their mothers constantly talk about it, plucking at their clothes and fanning themselves with their hands. p 15

Cuskelly touches on a range of issues here. The casual racism towards Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders as well as traditional values and roles proffered to men and woman, boys and girls – common in the past but exacerbated in small town living. The insular nature of the latter also evidenced by judgements made of a teacher at the school who’s different, and Carmel, a female cop in a man’s world. Not to mention a sense of indifference to the events outside their small community.

This is paced in a way that builds in a crescendo to a climax in which everything hits the fan.

I very much enjoyed this book. I note that Cuskelly grew up in Queensland so knows her stuff. (Yes, in Queensland we used the word ‘port’ for school bag or a suitcase!) I was taken back to my sleepy childhood that required us to create our own adventures and in which anything out of the ordinary became extraordinary. And…. I could smell the cane ash and see the fields burning.

The Cane by Maryrose Cuskelly was published in Australia by Allen & Unwin and is now available.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes. 


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