There is plenty of Australian rural crime fiction but it sometimes feels like the darkest strain comes from Tasmania. The northern Tasmanian coast is the setting for Monica Vuu’s debut novel When One of Us Hurts, a title that will eventually come back to bite the reader as elements of the plot are revealed. For the most part this is the story of two very damaged characters told from their own twisted and not very reliable perspectives.
The book opens two weeks after a double tragedy. A baby is found abandoned and dead at the base of the local lighthouse at Port Brighton and a young man, Sebastian, is found dead a few days later. The prevailing theory in the town that Sebastian, from an ‘Outsider’ family, killed the baby for reasons unknown and then committed suicide. Livvy is a fourteen-year-old local, and step-sister of sorts to Sebastian’s best friend Johnny, who’s participation in the deaths is also suspected by the town. Livvy narrates half of the book, introducing readers to the decidedly weird locals and detailing the leadup to the the night of both the baby’s death and Sebastian’s disappearance. The other half of the story is narrated by Marie, Johnny’s mother, from what appears to be some kind of secure facility. Marie’s recollections go much further back, detailing a series of tragdies and eventually coming to the relationship that brought Livvy into her life.
While they are interesting in different ways, neither Livvy nor Marie are particularly likeable characters. Livvy is a teenager who is nowhere near as clever as she thinks she is. She also has not much good to say about anyone, particularly outsiders to the town like Sebastian and his family and a reporter who comes nosing around. Marie is quickly established as vindictive to her roommate and damaged by a life of tragedy. Similarly, the whole town of Port Brighton itself is portrayed as insular and uninviting.
Readers’ engagement in this book will depend on how much they are willing to spend time with these two. But more critically, how invested they might be in finding out the real story behind the initial two deaths that neither of the main characters themselves seem to care about. There is more to this narrative than meets the eye, however. And there are some other aspects of When One of Us Hurts that draws on some other Australian crime fiction tropes and traditions. To detail those would be spoiling what turns out to be even darker aspects of Vuu’s debut. Readers who take the journey just need to be aware that this is a fairly grim crime tale and gird themselves appropriately.