Thursday, May 6

As Darkness Falls - Bronwyn Parry

Isabelle O'Connor is still on leave from the New South Wales police force, following the aftermath of a child abduction in her small country town. One year to the day, another child goes missing - the third in the region in three years. Though it's vindication that the accused suspect wasn't the perpetrator, Bella has less than a week to find Tanya alive. But she doesn't want to return to Dungirri, the town where she grew up, where she trusted in the support of her community, and where she was almost killed defending the suspected abductor from the mob that murdered him.
In conjunction with Sydney-based Detective Chief Inspector Alec Goddard, Bella has to use her instincts, skills and local knowledge to discover who the predator is, and recover Tanya before it's too late. But her own life is in danger, forcing her to rely on a stranger - a stranger to whom she's drawn despite herself.
Parry's first novel tries to combine a mystery with a traumatised-heroine romance; I found the latter far from compelling, at least in part because the writing was so hyperbolic. But from the opening I knew what to expect:

No, not this.
Detective Sergeant Isabelle O'Connor dragged up every ounce of self-discipline to halt the cry of denial, and it lodged, unsounded, in her throat, She closed her eyes against the sight as years that couldn't be shed scalded her eyelids.

Isabelle is beset by emotional response, though she manages to overcome it:
Panic almost overwhelmed her senses, thundering in her head, blurring her vision. A voice screamed from deep inside, No - not Alec too.

Information, predominantly about the hero and heroine, is dribbled to the reader in a way I suspect was intended to heighten intrigue and suspense, but which made the plot and motivations harder to understand than necessary. For example, Isabelle's florid reaction when Alec lets her know there's a snake at his feet (see "Panic almost overwhelemed her senses") would be more resonant if we knew before the event, rather than after, that her mother died of a snake bite in front of her when Isabelle was a child - I'd have related better to her need to summon "every internal resourse," the screaming of her inner voice and "the new wave of almost paralysing panic" she felt. I'd still have been distracted by the purple prose, but at least felt it was somewhat warranted. Learning this detail after the drama had abated made me instead think, "Oh, well then."
I could see no reason for reserving some of these facts for later in the novel, unless Parry's intent was to heap disaster upon disaster for her heroine. But they're all past events, incidents that have shaped who she is, and Isablle's responses and persona would have made far more sense to me had they been included at the outset, or at least earlier in the text.
There are several instances where the writing diminished what would otherwise have been emotionally resonant moments. I noticed this particularly when, in response to Alec's account of a genuinely distressing event, "Horror scalded her throat and his sorrow twisted tightly around her heart." A small amount of show - reaching for his hand, perhaps, would have heightened the effect rather than distracting from it.
And once again, this is an event that has contributed to a major character's demeanour and emotional availability, so including it earlier would have better accounted for Alec's reserve, despite himself. It would go some way to explaining why he remained distant from Bella, even though,
The fresh scent of her hair and the press of her body against his caused an avalanche of sensation to blast away the serenity he'd been experiencing just a moment before.
His breath stalled in his lungs as the urgent craving to pull her fully into his arms flooded his awareness. he almost did. Almost lost his self-control and gave in to the longing his sub-conscious had been pounding him with all day.

And that the writing is so distracting is a real shame, because elements of As Darkness Falls are really effective. I very much liked Isabelle's response to an ignorant remark about indigenous tracking (that also addressed the correct use of 'Koori'). Parry's portrayal of Dungirri is vivid and strongly evocative of a sense of place, taking me back to my childhood experiences staying with family in a Victorian country town. The tangled relationships of the townsfolk are convincingly portrayed, as is the stifling atmosphere of suspicion and guilt - though few of the attackers were formally charged, there have been a significant number of suicides and accidents among the town's men in the past twelve months, and the disappearance of Tanya demonstrates more powerfully than evidence that they killed an innocent man.
The mystery is equally strong - in true genre style, the perpetrator is in view all along, with both the revelation and dénouement ringing true. Had the writing style been more restrained and the character development more integrated, I would have been caught up in the hunt and concerned by the attacks on Bella (intended to destabilise her and distract her from the investigation), shocked by the reveal, and satisfied by the ending, which manages to conclude this chapter of their lives without tying everything up in a Happy Ever After.
Instead I'm not particularly fussed, felt no emotional resonance or satisfaction, and if I'm inclined to read the next of Parry's works it will only be because Lynn has a connection with the author. - Alex

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