Book review: Scrublands by Chris Hammer

Monday, July 30, 2018 Permalink

I’d had this book for a while before tucking into it Saturday evening in the bath. I wasn’t too sure it was for me, though I’m not sure why. Perhaps some antipathy towards what felt like ANOTHER book about small town or rural Australia? I’m not sure.

But… holy shit, this book blew me away! I was hooked from the get-go. The opening scene (prologue) is great. And kinda dire. The writing is excellent, the plot intriguing and the lead character, Martin is both enigmatic and very (very) real all at once. 

Book review: Scrublands by Chris HammerScrublands
by Chris Hammer
Series: Martin Scarsden #1
Published by Allen & Unwin
on August 1st 2018
Source: Allen & Unwin
Genres: Crime Fiction, Thriller / Suspense
ISBN: 9781760632984
Pages: 496

In an isolated country town brought to its knees by endless drought, a charismatic and dedicated young priest calmly opens fire on his congregation, killing five parishioners before being shot dead himself.

A year later, troubled journalist Martin Scarsden arrives in Riversend to write a feature on the anniversary of the tragedy. But the stories he hears from the locals about the priest and incidents leading up to the shooting don't fit with the accepted version of events his own newspaper reported in an award-winning investigation. Martin can't ignore his doubts, nor the urgings of some locals to unearth the real reason behind the priest's deadly rampage.

Just as Martin believes he is making headway, a shocking new development rocks the town, which becomes the biggest story in Australia. The media descends on Riversend and Martin is now the one in the spotlight. His reasons for investigating the shooting have suddenly become very personal.

Wrestling with his own demons, Martin finds himself risking everything to discover a truth that becomes darker and more complex with every twist. But there are powerful forces determined to stop him, and he has no idea how far they will go to make sure the town's secrets stay buried.

For Martin this is initially just a way to get back on top. He’s had a bad experience in the Middle East and it’s one that he thinks he should be over, but isn’t. This gig – a reflection on a town a year after a tragedy – isn’t meant to revisit the actions of the priest, Byron Swift, or question his motivations.

He’s not in town long though before he starts pondering exactly that. Swift, the cold killer who gunned down five people sounds nothing like the man many describe – reflecting a zen-like ‘goodness’ almost as if he’s not of this world (which worried me a few times that we were going to venture into some science fiction realm I didn’t see coming!). And Swift’s potential motivation. set out in Martin’s own colleague’s award-winning piece on the murders, doesn’t seem to resonate.

It turns out Swift is one of many enigmas inhabiting Riversend and its surrounds, and author (and journalist) Chris Hammer gives us an interesting array of locals.

Codger Harris is truly appalling, but the old man possesses an element of inexplicable charm. As if to underline the point, Codger reaches down and scratches his scrotum. Inexplicable is right. p 81

I should mention here Codger lives pretty much in isolation in the Scrublands and, as he puts it… lives in a ‘clothes-free zone’ cos it’s ‘too bloody hot for ’em.’ (So the scrotum-scratching thing while in the company of others isn’t terribly subtle!)

There’s a sense that Riversend is where people go to disappear. Until the actions of Byron Swift briefly brought the town onto the headlines, it’d gone on for years – secrets kept, grief buried and roles played.

Whether it could have gone on like that, if not for the murders, we’ll never know. But Swift’s actions blew the town, its secrets and its community apart.

Martin’s first impressions of Riversend as it is now (this ‘husk of a town’) remind me very much of my own childhood home town. Though it’s much larger and Maryborough’s not faced a tragedy that’s been as devastating (though it’s had its share of floods, highway bypasses and industry deaths) the main streets of the town sound like Riversend’s. On a larger scale.

Here (in Riversend), it feels a bit like people have given up on it. And those who haven’t, soon fall by the wayside or bide time until the inevitable.

But…. somewhere (simmering beneath the surface) there is a fighting spirit, as evidenced when the town’s fighting threatening bushfires.

Hammer’s writing is beautiful. It’s easy and comfortable but with a strong sense of trepidation. His words and descriptions are vivid and offer real texture. His ability to portray the desolation of Riversend, the Scrublands, its community and its inhabitants is impressive. And the scenes describing the onslaught of bushfires (in particular) elicit a sense of urgency and desperation that’s almost visceral.

Martin looks up through the blizzard of ash: the clouds that just a moment ago were black as coal are turning blood red, brighter and brighter as he watches, as if glowing from within, bathing the yard in orange light. And he can hear something in the distance, above the wind: a roaring, like a freight train heading straight towards them….

The roaring is almost upon them. Martin can hear explosions, like cracking whips or gunshots and as he gains the verandah he can glimpse it through the scrub, the licking orange tongues of death. p 100

And Martin is the perfect host for this confronting and complex journey. He’s narrating the events unfolding but smart enough to ponder the repercussions of his own actions and consider the benefits and implications of others; and this self-reflection was something I particularly appreciated.

There are obvious metaphors between Martin and the town of Riversend, both needing to heal but simultaneously being stuck in the past.

It makes Martin wonder about himself, why the experience in Gaza has left him so gutted, why the damage lingers. After all, he has lost no one, suffered no enduring injuries. Compared to the people in Riversend he got off lightly. p 124

And though I’m jumping ahead to the ‘destination’ rather than the journey…. Riversend is where Martin is confronted by the fact that he’s now (more than once) ‘become’ the story and changed professionally (and personally) as a result – understanding that might not be a bad thing…. ie. being more than an observer.

He was involved; he had no God-given leave pass, no right to stand apart from the story, apart from life. He was a participant, like it or not. Things no longer happened only to other people; some small part of their grief or their joy, or their hollowness wore off on him, became part of him. How had he ever thought otherwise. p 461

I’ve struggled with this review as I wanted to do this book justice. It’s an amazing read. Some will say reminiscent of novels like Jane Harper’s The Dry but for me it also reflects the poignancy of Favel Parrett’s writing and the sense of place offered up by Tim Winton, or Eliza Henry-Jones via Ache.

Scrublands by Chris Hammer was published in Australia by Allen & Unwin and now available.

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


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