Darkness Runs Deep by Claire McNeel

16/02/2024
Darkness Runs Deep by Claire McNeel

Claire McNeel’s debut novel is a bit of a bait and switch. The title Darkness Runs Deep hints at thriller or even horror territory. The cover features an ominous empty dirt country road at night. And the cold open features a blood soaked teenager running up to a front door. So what readers might expect is more gritty Australian rural crime. But Darkness Runs Deep is not that book. There is a crime which sits behind the action of the book, the outlines of which kept as a mystery from no one except for the reader. But in the end the crime itself is not the point. Everyone knows what happened, who did it and what the consequences were. The point of Darkness Runs Deep is actually to celebrate women playing Australian Rules Football.

It is 1993 and school teacher Bess takes some time off and returns to her home town of Gerandaroo just… because. Bess’s parents and the town as a whole are still traumatised by something that happened the year before which has led to the two junior football teams (Gerandaroo and nearby Denby) being banned from playing on the local oval. When Bess catches up with her old friend Jules, she is dared to start a Geranderoo womens’ team to take on a new team being formed in Denby. With plenty of heart and despite community resistance, Bess manages to scrape a team together to take on their traditional rivals. There are very few readers who are not going to anticipate how this all plays out.

Given the global success of the Womens’ Soccer World Cup and the rise of womens’ cricket the Womens’ Australian Football League in Australia it is hard to remember a time when these team sports were essentially single gendered. McNeel takes readers back to that time, really not so long ago, and the inbuilt prejudice that players needed to overcome to be considered legitimate. But unfortunately for McNeel, despite perhaps the focus on AFL being new this story has been told before in movies like A League of Their Own (baseball), Bend it Like Beckham (soccer), and Girlfight (boxing). So that the plot of Darkness Runs Deep ends up running on very familiar rails with too many minor characters (there are 18 in an AFL team) to keep track of or care about too much.

Darkness Runs Deep clearly comes from a place of passion for McNeel, and she shows her ability to tell a good yarn. Despite its packaging, this is not a book for people looking to get their fix of Australian rural noir. But it should have been marketed as what it is – a feel-good story of the passion behind AFL and the ability of the sport to overcome barriers and bring people together. On this level, while it is a little cliched, McNeel succeeds in what she sets out to do.

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Darkness Runs Deep by Claire McNeel

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7

7.0/10

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Darkness Runs Deep by Claire McNeel

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