Prolific Australian author and multiple award winner Catherine Jinks has been moving into thriller territory recently. Her last novel Shepherdwas a pursuit thriller set during Australia’s convict period featuring a wily ex-poacher and his implacable psychopathic pursuer. Her latest novel Shelter is more contemporary and takes a slightly different approach to its thrills. The tension builds more slowly but is still there from the first page.
Meg and Jill are part of an informal network who help women who are escaping from violent or abusive relationships. As the novel opens, Meg is taking delivery of Nerine and her two young children from Jill. Meg knows something about this, having herself left an emotionally abusive relationship with Keith. She now lives on her own in a small cottage on a rocky parcel of land in rural NSW while her daughter Emily escaped both her parents to live in England. Meg has agreed to shelter Nerine and her two daughters, five-year-old Ana and two-year-old Collette, until they can move on. But from the beginning, Meg and Nerine clash as Nerine is sure that her ex-husband Duncan will track her down.
Almost at once things start to go wrong. Someone leaves the henhouse open and Meg’s chickens are killed. Then they start hearing strange noises and Meg finds a screen taken out of one of the windows. While Nerine is sure that it is Duncan, Meg is more convinced that it is Keith. The two have been fighting in court over Keith’s mother’s will in which all of her money was left to Meg. As Nerine’s paranoia grows, the situation starts to spiral out of control.
While there is an air of unreality about the way the action unfolds (which includes not only Chekhov’s rifle but also Chekhov’s antique pistol), Shelter is a thriller based heavily in a real social issue. Jinks uses the scenario to explore the power dynamics within a marriage, and particular the impact of controlling men and women on their spouses and their children. The flashbacks show Meg being constantly gaslighted by her husband, a behaviour so consistent that it drives away her daughter and leaves her vulnerable to that behaviour from others even year’s later. And Nerine’s parenting skills, including training her children to hide, become more and more questionable as the book goes on.
As with Shepherd, Jinks effectively captures the Australian landscape in which Meg lives. Her house is on a scrubby, rocky bush block that cannot sustain cattle, with a gorge on one side and electric fence between her and her neighbours. While it is described in a more bucolic way early on, the final action-filled scenes make good use of these features.
All of these ingredients make Shelter is an effective thriller. There is tension from the first page, with Jinks hinting that all might not be quite as it seems, but keeping the reader guessing as to what is really going on and what might just be Meg’s paranoia. And while some of both Nerine and Meg’s actions strain credibility, Jinks keeps the pace up and builds effectively to a frenetic finale.
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