The gothic tradition comes to us from England – full of misty windswept moors, tragic heroines and gloomy stately homes. Over the years Australian authors have taken the gothic tradition and made it their own. In these books, the landscape itself is an unknowable, often malevolent presence, and the sins of the past are never far from the surface. Books like Joan Linsday’s classic Picnic at Hanging Rock are best known but more recently local authors have been pushing into the genre with books like Krissy Kneen’s Wintering and Cassandra Austin’s All Fall Down.
Karen Manton’s debut The Curlew’s Eye, set in the steamy Northern Territory, sits firmly in the gothic tradition. From the beginning, Manton sets up the classic elements of the genre – a return to the ruin of the family estate which itself is the scene of an old tragedy, a dangerous, in some cases toxic, landscape, a crazy neighbour, sightings of and encounters with a fey teenage girl, an underpinning of fairytale logic and a slow build up to a series of explosive revelations.
Greta and Joel and their three boys live a peripatetic lifestyle, never settling down in any one place. They have come to Joel’s family property in a small town outside of Darwin with a view to fixing it up prior to it being sold. Joel is one of six brothers, all of whom left soon after a series of tragedies in which their younger sister Magdalen and their mother both died and the homestead on the property was burnt down. Greta and her family set up in a small shack on the property and start to make connections in the town. But Greta soon finds herself entranced by the landscape and meets a teenage girl who appears to be living rough on the property but also keeps a store of memorabilia from Joel’s childhood.
Anyone who reads or watches gothic-style narratives should be able to pick the twists in The Curlew’s Eye. But despite their obviousness, Manton deploys them well, building up slowly to the ultimate, tragic revelations. And just when readers might think that all of the tragedy had been put behind them, some late, unrelated (and possibly unnecessary) information comes to light about Greta’s own tragic past.
The Curlew’s Eye is a slow-burn gothic tale. There are plenty of small heart starters throughout the book including missing children, fire, raging storms and encounters with the toxic lake on the property. These real dangers in a beautiful but unforgiving landscape sit on top of the psychological minefield and the capacity for evil that becomes apparent as Joel’s family past is brought to the surface. But the narrative itself builds slowly – it is all about the atmosphere and a growing sense of unease. And, unlike at least some gothic tales that lean more towards the horror elements of the genre, the catharsis that comes when secrets are finally brought to the surface (in one case, literally) and faced.