Fictional characters have been mysteriously disappearing in the Australian landscape for years. Despite efforts to colonise and urbanise, the land continues to swallow people up, particularly in fiction. So that when eighteen-year-old Rosie White disappears at the beginning of Goodwood there is a distinct Picnic at Hanging Rock feeling in the air. And like that book, Goodwood is for the most part more interested on the effect of that disappearance, and another a few days later, on the psyche of a small town than it is on solving the mystery. Although unlike its famous predecessor, Holly Throsby does provide a solution.
Singer and songwriter Holly Throsby goes back to 1992 for her debut novel set in Goodwood, a mythical but typical NSW south coast town. Goodwood is a quirky town built on logging, fishing, a large coastal lake and a struggling dairy industry. With its bowlo and pub, Goodwood is too small to have a proper supermarket, but big enough to have a school. Full of the types of oddball characters, many harbouring dark secrets, that readers (and TV viewers of shows like Seachange) have come to expect from these literary country towns.
Narrator Jean Brown is sixteen, on the cusp of adulthood and reasonably happy with her life. The disappearance, first of Rosie and then of well-respected butcher and town councillor Bart McDonald, throw both the town and her life into disarray. Through her uncle, the town policeman, she manages to keep an eye on the investigation into the disappearances, but she is also keeping a secret that might hold a key to the mystery.
There is plenty of quirkiness here – the neighbour who is constantly having accidents, the school kids’ annual Fishing’s the Funnest parade (followed by a FishFry at the bowlo), the busybody shop keeper with a love of Patricia Cornwall forensic thriller novels. But despite its surface quirkiness, Throsby takes Goodwood to some fairly dark places. In particular sexual assault, domestic violence, gambling and alcoholism. And then, true to the time frame, the discovery of bodies in the Belangalo State Forest associated with a killer soon to be dubbed the Backpacker Murderer add another layer of menace. These themes and tone butt up hard against the gentle strangeness of the town and a slow moving teen coming-of-age/first-love story.
Goodwood is a brave debut novel – mixing murder mystery, quirky small town observations and coming of age – which does not quite hit the mark. Despite a valiant effort, some tart observation and some sparkling prose, Throsby does not manage to pull these disparate elements together into a cohesive whole. The narrative often loses focus and drags at times affecting the tension that should carry readers through to the solution to the mystery. But overall this is an interesting debut of a new Australian literary talent.