Reviews: Garry Disher

Garry Disher is speaking at our library tomorrow night. It’s part of a promotional tour for his new crime novel, Bitter Wash Road. I thought I’d better read the book! Here is my review, together with some reflections on his much earlier YA novella (for want of a better classification), The Apostle Bird.

Bitter Wash Road (1997)

Bitter Wash RoadBitter Wash Road by Garry Disher
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was the first of Disher’s crime novels that I’ve read, and it probably won’t be the last. I’ve enjoyed his YA work in the past, and this very recent publication confirms Disher as one of Australia’s better novelists. What I particularly like about Disher is the way he brings his settings to life – without getting bogged down in tedious description like so many writers. This book is set in rural South Australia, where the author grew up, so it is not surprising that he can describe the harsh surroundings accurately; but it takes great skill to make the reader feel as though they are there.

I’m not going to bother with a plot summary here. It would be difficult to summarise this story without giving too much away – there are a few seemingly insignificant incidents that assume greater importance as the novel unfolds (isn’t that always the case with this genre?) so a summary might spoil the next reader’s experience. The narrative is fast-paced, with a new lead or clue every few pages, but we rarely get the impression that the action is contrived. There were a few incidents that seemed a little too serendipitous, but the explanations are in the end satisfactory. The characters are mostly believable, though a few are one-dimensional (Andrewartha and Nicholson are probably the worst examples).

The language is often very coarse, and some readers may find this a problem, but it is authentic. The conversations would seem unrealistic if sanitised. There is violence, gore, sex, but nothing gratuitous. International readers may be confused by the names of some vehicles, foods and other items well-known to Australians – it will be interesting to see if any of these are changed for editions in other countries.

I read this book as an eBook, thanks to my local library and the Axis 360 lending platform. It’s a great way to read crime fiction. Any time I needed to be reminded where I’d met a character before, I just searched for the name. This didn’t help me solve the mystery of course! Some of my initial suspicions were confirmed, but there were enough twists and surprises to keep me interested until the last page.

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The Apostle Bird (1997)

The Apostle BirdThe Apostle Bird by Garry Disher
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A short, simple tale, enjoyable but not entirely satisfying due to a lack of balance in audience and length. The narrator and two other main characters are about 15 years of age: the tone is suited to a younger audience, perhaps 11-12, though a few passages are appropriate for a more mature reader. This lack of equilibrium is also evident in the narrative, which unfolds steadily, then rushes to a climax and resolution in a few pages. The book feels a little like a stretched-out short story, but also hints at a lot of loose ends that demand to be followed through. Perhaps a longer novel would have been more fulfilling?

There is plenty of interest here for the student writer. The use of present tense and first-person narrator is expertly handled, and Disher is a master of location. The reader quickly gains a sense of the harsh mallee conditions, and the quiet desperation of the goldminers. None of the characters are drawn in great detail, partly due to the brevity of the book, and partly because everything is described from the narrator’s point of view. It succeeds as a short rite-of-passage story, despite the misgiving outlined above.

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