Book review: Under the Midnight Sky by Anna Romer

Wednesday, April 17, 2019 Permalink

Although I missed Anna Romer’s much-lauded debut, Thornwood House I’ve read Lyrebird Hill and read and interviewed Romer about Beyond the Orchard.

I’d assumed this book would have gothic or fairytale (are they not the same thing? Different sides of the same coin perhaps?) undertones, but it sits a little more firmly in the mystery genre and what WAS to be a short pre-dinner read, turned into several hours, until I’d finished the book.

Book review: Under the Midnight Sky by Anna RomerUnder the Midnight Sky
by Anna Romer
Published by Simon & Schuster AU
on May 1st 2019
Source: Simon & Schuster
Genres: General Fiction, Literary Fiction
ISBN: 9781925184457
Pages: 400

When an injured teenager goes missing at a remote bushland campground, local journalist Abby Bardot is determined to expose the area’s dark history. The girl bears a striking resemblance to the victims of three brutal murders that occurred twenty years ago and Abby fears the killer is still on the loose.

But the newspaper Abby works for wants to suppress the story for fear it will scare off tourists to the struggling township. Haunted by her own turbulent memories, Abby is desperate to learn the truth and enlists the help of Tom Gabriel, a reclusive crime writer. At first resentful of Abby’s intrusion, Tom’s reluctance vanishes when they discover a hidden attic room in his house that shows evidence of imprisonment from half a century before.

As Abby and Tom sift through the attic room and discover its tragic history, they become convinced it holds the key to solving the bushland murders and finding the missing girl alive.

But their quest has drawn out a killer, someone with a shocking secret who will stop at nothing to keep the truth buried.

The book unfolds in two timeframes – in the now, and in the past through a diary spanning 1948-1953 – though we also dip into the late 1990s via Abby’s memories.

I really enjoyed the balance between historical fiction, mystery and romance that Romer manages to achieve here – which is saying something as I’m pretty hard to please on that front!

We learn missing girls span half a century. There are the two featured in the old diary (Lilly and Frankie) though their presence in the community went unnoticed; two bodies found in Deepwater Gorge twenty years earlier; Abby’s failed abduction and the subsequent abduction and murder of her friend not long after; and in the present… another young woman is missing.

It’s obvious there’s a link – particularly involving the disappearance and murders over the past twenty years. Initially Abby has a sense of relief (despite the guilt) that someone has been jailed for her attempted abduction and her friend Alice’s death but she starts to doubt that certainty.

Of course the question is also, whether the disappearance of two sisters in post-war Sydney is even linked to Deepwater Gorge. It’s only the presence of the cell-like room and a page from a diary that has Abby and Tom drawing these conclusions.

As a reader (and a fan of the whodunit) it seems impractical that someone could have committed crimes in both 1948 and 2018. Of course I watch Criminal Minds on TV (!!!) so know copycats exist, and that psychopaths often groom their prey or kin to continue their legacy… So what is it here?

I really liked Abby. It takes a while for us to understand her guilt around her abduction and her friend’s death. Romer also introduces a few open-ended questions around Abby’s mother and her subsequent relationship with her father and I felt a little on tenterhooks waiting for a big reveal on that front.

I also enjoyed meeting true crime writer / novelist Tom – initially prickly and belligerent but really just wounded and distrustful. I liked the way Romer underplayed Tom and Abby’s attraction and had them slowly trusting each other enough to uncover the Gorge’s secrets. (If not their own.)

And then we’re introduced to an older couple (Joe and Lil). It seems kinda obvious where Lil fits in but not what they know, what secrets they’re keeping; or (more importantly perhaps) what secrets they’re keeping from each other. Their love for each other seems obvious, but there’s also a sense of trepidation.

As though it wasn’t Lil looking out at him, but a stranger. Someone else, a woman he didn’t recognise. A woman he’d seen from time to time over the years, but had chosen to ignore. Lil had a secret self who sometimes slipped through a breach in her soul. Took charge for a while until the real Lil managed to fight her way back to him. pp 95-96

And finally, of course we meet the young woman Abby stumbles across as the book opens.

I wasn’t sure where this book was going. Romer points us in a direction but doesn’t reveal the specifics and nuances until the very end. I must admit I wasn’t entirely convinced by the way things were wrapped up – good ol’ justice-loving me etc.

But this was a great read and kept me riveted, wondering. Secrets upon secrets. Guilt and redemption. Menacing overtones amidst small town stillness. This book has it all.

Under the Midnight Sky by Anna Romer will be published in Australia by Simon & Schuster and available from 1 May 2019. (Although I’m publishing my review a little early as apparently the book’s been released early!)

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


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