Monday 17 June 2019

Disappearance and self-destruction beneath the gum tree

Swimming on Dry Land
Helen Blackhurst Seren Books. €14.99

Deirdre Conroy

Deirdre Conroy

This debut novel opens with the rather ominous disappearance of four-year-old Georgie. She had been playing hide and seek with her elder sister, Monica, on the disused mining area around their caravan.

Twelve-year-old Monica retraces their movements behind oil barrels, giant wheels and old tyres thrown in the scrub. It is 1985 and their parents have moved to the opal-mining town of Akarula in Australia, in search of paradise.

But what they found was a one-tree town in the searing outback heat. Monica’s uncle Eddie had encouraged his brother to move from England.

A bachelor-dreamer, Eddie’s big project as a property speculator is Akarula and he’s obsessed with his brother’s wife. The promise of paradise and a fatal attraction persuaded Monica’s mother to move. Her dreams of a singing career had died with the birth of her daughters.

The family know nothing of the other ‘disappearances’, while the villagers search down disused mine shafts for the little girl.

Craters of hollow earth remain where the arid bush was ransacked and abandoned by the mining corporation. All the while, Mr M sits beneath the lone gum tree, his aboriginal presence symbolising colonial oppression over indigenous landscape and peoples.

 The novel is told from four points of view, a daring technique for a debut. Just as the reader is getting comfortable they are abruptly interrupted with a different voice. The most compelling is that of Monica, full of hope and beguiling innocence, despite the behaviour of the three adult characters around her. She is wise beyond her years, with an instinct to survive the unfolding drama of her parents’ lives.

The gum tree remains a spectre throughout each narrative, engaging a troublesome theme of self-destruction.

Born in Cheshire, Helen Blackhurst now lives in Ireland. She had an opportunity to meet publishers and agents at the 2015 Greenbean Novel Fair at the Irish Writers Centre which  provided  up-and-coming writers with an invaluable  chance to bypass the slush pile.

Swimming on Dry Land is one of many successes to be published over the last three years.

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