Book review: The Shifting Landscape by Katherine Kovacic

Saturday, April 11, 2020 Permalink

I met Melbourne author Katherine Kovacic at the BAD Sydney Crime Writers’ Festival in late 2019. Her first book, The Portrait of Molly Dean was a finalist for Australia’s premier crime-fiction award, The Ned Kelly Awards.

I’d heard of the book but as I’d assumed it was historical non-fiction I hadn’t read it (usually preferring to chew off my arm than read either historical fiction or non-fiction). But after meeting Kovacic and learning more about the book, I bought it and was enchanted.

Book review: The Shifting Landscape by Katherine KovacicThe Shifting Landscape
by Katherine Kovacic
Series: Alex Clayton #3
Published by Echo Publising
on 01/04/2020
Source: Echo Publishing
Genres: Crime Fiction, General Fiction
ISBN: 9781760686444
Pages: 276

Art dealer Alex Clayton travels to Victoria's Western District to value the MacMillan family's collection. At their historic sheep station, she finds an important and previously unknown colonial painting - and a family fraught with tension.

There are arguments about the future of the property and its place in an ancient and highly significant Indigenous landscape.

When the family patriarch dies under mysterious circumstances and the painting is stolen, Alex decides to leave; then a toddler disappears and Alex's faithful dog Hogarth goes missing. With fears rising for the safety of both child and hound, Alex and her best friend John, who has been drawn into the mystery, join searchers scouring the countryside. But her attempts to unravel the MacMillan family secrets have put Alex in danger, and she's not the only one. Will the killer claim another victim? Or will the landscape reveal its mysteries to Alex in time?

Because I came across Kovavic’s work and The Portrait of Molly Dean (Molly Dean) late, I hadn’t realised I’d missed the second book in this series and I need to go back and read that. It didn’t matter and newcomers to the books can easily start here, but I quickly realised on starting this I’d missed something between meeting her best friend John in Molly Dean and his appearance here.

I caught up quickly, but there’s a smidge of ‘will they / won’t they’ in the air. Even though the pair have only ever been ‘just’ friends.

I adore Alex. She’s irreverent and not at all what you’d expect in the art dealing / appraising world. Kovacic writes her in a way that she’s incredibly engaging and impossible not to like.

But it’s not only Alex herself who’s alluring because here we see (the world) through Kovacic’s eyes as well and I really really love her intelligent writing and story-telling. It’s kinda hard to explain but she effortlessly offers us an amazing level of detail and visual cues in a completely accessible way. I remember the same from Molly Dean, the incredible detail in the description of (not just artwork) but decor, architecture and (more so here) the countryside.

The landscape undulates gently, reminding me of a rumpled blanket. Sometimes it unfurls, smoothing out and giving us glimpses of a distant horizon; sometimes it envelops the road in a deep fold, and all we can see on either side is waving grass. We’re still some way out of Dunkeld when the Grampians seemingly appear out of nowhere, a grey-green ridge rising out of the plains on our right, the jagged peaks like the spine of a massive prehistoric creature sprawled across the earth.

The vast blue sty arching over yellowed pastures, dotted with sheep and the occasional stand of gum trees reminds me of Arthur Streeton’s Land of the Golden Fleece. p 6

Kovacic often drops terminology and texture into her prose that—though I’ve no idea what they mean—it doesn’t matter and I don’t feel stupid for not knowing. There’s absolutely no haughty arsehole-ness present in her writing. I love her dry humour and complete lack of elitism, even though we’re dealing with subject matter that could lend itself to it.

The road we’re on sweeps down to circle around a three-tier-cherub-and-swan-laden fountain, behind which stands Kinloch itself, a riot of corbels and crow-stepped gables with a square tower rising above the two-storey house: basically it’s a Scottish baronial mansion in the middle of regional Victoria. It’s bloody sensational and I am now so desperate to see if the artwork on the inside does justice to the exterior that I barely manage to avoid flooring the Subaru and spraying gravel as we set off towards the front door. p 9

Molly Dean unfolded in two timeframes. I’d been worried about the historical element, but enjoyed it. The Shifting Landscape is written only in the present and takes place over just a few days. Unlike Molly Dean which was very city centric, this third book in the series takes place in rural Australia and Alex (and Kovacic) are certainly at home here. If I was less lazy I’d research (well, google) interviews Kovacic’s been doing to understand her familiarity with this world.

Molly Dean was thoroughly researched to do its subject matter justice and it felt the same here. Though the property (Kinloch) is fictional there’s a lot of detail about the Indigenous population and Traditional Owners of the land as well as their culture and former industries (aquaculture and eel farming, for example).

Weirdly I probably didn’t adore this quite as much as Molly Dean but only because of the setting. There was something fascinating about the richness of the world populated by Alex and Molly in the first book, with its artists and creatives. For me the world of art dealing, restoring and auctions was all new so I was intrigued. Nevertheless it was wonderful to again meet Alex (and Hogarth the wolfhound) and enjoy crime fiction packaged in clever and witty prose and an intelligent narrative.

The Shifting Landscape by Katherine Kovacic was published in Australia by Echo Publishing and is now available.

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


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