Allen & Unwin, $29.99
Author Holly Throsby shows a knack for capturing the wry humour and laconic idiom of rural Australia.Credit:Nic Walker
For the small and normally somnolent NSW town of Cedar Valley, the arrival of a stranger such as Benny Miller is a noteworthy occasion. The young woman's arrival from Sydney, however, comes on the same day a mysterious and impeccably dressed gentleman also lobs in town. He tries to buy a pasty from the famous pie shop, then sits down outside an antique shop and promptly dies.
As the town reels from the strange death, Benny sets up a new home in a cottage owned by Odette, a former friend of her recently deceased mother, Vivian Moon, who had been only briefly part of Benny's life. But Benny is determined to learn more about this enigmatic figure who seems to have charmed and perplexed everyone whose orbit she entered. Odette begins sharing her memories and the younger woman also comes across books that belonged to her mother, finds stashes of photographs featuring her and gleans information from the town's inhabitants.
Meanwhile, police inquiries about the dead man prove frustrating. Those who saw him describe his actions as deliberate, but nobody knows where he came from or even his cause of death. The police follow every avenue of inquiry: the bus he rode, the few possessions he had, his formal attire – even a woman resembling a character from The Young and the Restless who was seen talking to him.
The twin enigmas of Vivian and the dead man slowly unfurl in a narrative unafraid of giving its characters space. The predictable, reassuring rhythms of Cedar Valley slowly work a restorative effect on Benny. Early in her stay, she weeps "with all the elemental sadness that a person can only feel when their mother has newly died". But she bonds with the gentle, emotionally intelligent Odette, at one stage reflecting, "How lovely it was to be held by a person like this, of such reassuring strength".
She begins working at the Royal Tavern, an establishment "painted pink like the chest of a galah" and run by the genial, quietly efficient Tom. It's one of Cedar Valley's gossip forums and social centres, along with the two rival book clubs and Curios, the antique shop presided over by Cora Franks. Initially seen "carrying on like a pork chop" at the crime scene and sticky-beaking into Benny's move into the cottage, Cora later emerges as an unexpectedly poignant figure.
Aficionados of Australian true crime may find particular resonance in the whydunnit here but the mystery is only part of a rich patchwork. Set in 1993, it's also a portrait of a community before the digital revolution, though it wears its historical setting lightly. It reflects on how a strange happening can tear at the delicate social fabric of a town but also how its strong communal spirit can go some way to fulfilling a person's deepest longing.
Originally known for her carefully crafted music, Throsby's fiction debut, Goodwood, sparkled with humanity and descriptive power. Cedar Valley offers a smaller cast of characters but interesting new elements to the author's prowess, not least a strong ear for dialogue and a knack for capturing the wry humour and laconic idiom of rural Australia.
Throsby has talked of Cedar Valley as existing in the same fictional world as its predecessor, something akin to Kent Haruf's Holt, Colorado novels or Thomas Hardy's Wessex tales. By the end of the beautiful and humble Cedar Valley, you may yearn for another dot on the map of Throsby's imagination.
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