Back in 1989, Alec Stynes, a 14-year-old boy who had just arrived from the city, was killed in a suspected hit-and-run in the small town of Pine Creek, New South Wales. The distinctive coat the boy was last seen wearing couldn’t be found. Young Sara Hamilton had her suspicions about the cause of his death at the time, and has carried a burden of guilt with her through the years. Now an adult, she returns to her hometown in search of the truth.
Though on the surface PINE CREEK looks as if it will be a fairly routine contemporary mystery thriller, the book reveals itself to be a rather sophisticated coming-of-age story. It revisits a period of history marred by the AIDS crisis and the abominable cruelty shown to the gay community in a hostile climate that was driven by fear and intolerance. Readers hoping for a forensic-style investigation of a cold case may be disappointed, but this is certainly not to suggest the book does not have much to be admired. Though the plot centers around what happened to Alec Stynes, a flamboyant outcast in the midst of small-town antipathy, the real story charts the growth of Sara, the one local resident who seemed sympathetic to the boy’s plight. Author Kamille Roach is exceptionally skilled at relating Sara’s burgeoning sexuality as she moves through puberty and tries to find her way in the world. Her ogre-ish father casts a dark shadow on the family. He is violent and misogynistic, insisting that there has always been “something wild and untrustworthy” about women. He holds an absolute disgust for homosexuals and the plague he believes they brought upon themselves. Sara’s mother is terrorized and diminished, unable to talk openly to her children. One exceptional scene features a monstrous, vitriolic explosion at the dinner table—during which Sara cowers inside herself and resorts to reciting song lyrics to deflect her father’s relentless verbal abuse.
While the book tails off in the final 50 pages, it is otherwise very well-written. The dialogue is sharp, and Roach crafts some neat turns of phrase. An insult is dropped “casually like a snake on the floor,” her father’s poisonous opinions are thrown “like black nets,” and white potato chunks “dance a slow ballet” as they boil in the pot. The second half of the novel finds the older Sara returning to Pine Creek. Still deeply affected by the trauma of her family life, she is on anxiety medication and prone to suicidal thoughts. In spite of her father being crippled by a stroke, his malign influence remains—and she is facing this every bit as much as she faces the truth of Alec’s death.
Emotionally charged and cleverly structured, Kamille Roach’s PINE CREEK is a very impressive novel.
~Kent Lane for IndieReader