Why is it that every criminals-on-the-run road trip story featuring two women is automatically compared to Thelma and Louise? That movie fit squarely within a tradition of crime-driven road trip fiction – its defining feature being that the main characters are women. So it is fairly easy to describe Emma Style’s scorching debut No Country for Girls, featuring two teenagers on the run in Northern Western Australia, as ‘Thelma and Louise for a new generation’. This short hand will give readers some idea of what the book is like. But it also sells it short.
No Country for Girls centres around two young adults – final year high schooler Charlie and uni student Nao. Charlie and Nao meet in a decidedly not cute way – Nao is looking for somewhere to crash and Charlie is dealing with her sister’s dodgy boyfriend Daryl who has come over to take back a gold ingot she has stolen from him, a confrontation that ends tragically. Charlie and Nao find themselves on the run, heading north in Daryl’s car with a bag full of gold with someone on their tail. Soon, Charlie’s sister Geena, who is more involved with the gold than Charlie knows, is drawn into the chase. As the two head further north, into the remoter parts of Western Australia things become more dangerous and more desperate.
No Country for Girls traverses the single main road that runs from Perth through to Port Hedland and Broome. As characters point out, it is reasonably easy to follow someone out there because there is really only one road. And Styles, who grew up in WA, captures that road and its landscapes in a way that will make readers feel the heat coming off the bitumen:
…all that flat country between them and the horizon
Closer to them are the shredded remains of a giant truck tyre, ripped and spread in pieces along the edge of the bitumen. Beyond that a single tree, top-heavy and bent at the crown, the shadow of it outlined against the dirt. [Geena] can taste the dust on her teeth.
There’s a hot easterly wind mixing with the heat coming up at them from the exhaust, somewhere a bird crying, thin and high up near the sun, and her skin burning.
Central to this narrative are the two girls who come from very different worlds. Charlie comes from the wrong side of the tracks, struggling in high school and, along with her sister Geena, looking for a way out – their dream to move to Surfers Paradise on the other side of the country. While Nao is Aboriginal but has lost her connection with her family and her country after the death of her father and her mother’s remarriage. Charlie is a little rough around the edges and Nao needs to find her toughness and come to terms with her past, but both find themselves willing to do whatever is needed to get through the ordeal that they find themselves in.
While there are echoes of other crime/road fiction No Country for Girls provides a new spin on these established tropes, particularly through its protagonists and setting. Styles has delivered a propulsive debut thriller with more than a bit of violence, close scrapes, ingenuity, engaging side characters and plenty of heart.