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Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Broken Shore, by Peter Temple (Picador, $14)

Aussie, Aussie, Aussie! Oy, oy, oy!

True or false: An Australian book should be easy to read because we speak the same language. Bwap! False. There's even a glossary in the back so you know what "spaggy bol" and "ute" are. (Spaghetti bolognese and utility truck, if you must know.) Those are some milder terms used in this police procedural. Needless to say a lot of the terms are profane rather than profound. Despite needing a translator, bite my jolly jumbuck, I really liked this book!

Peter Temple slowly, agonizingly reveals what happened to his main character, police detective Joe Cashin. Cashin has been re-assigned from the big city of Melbourne to the backwater area, Port Monro, where he grew up. The story begins with Cashin assessing the aches and pains, physical and psychological that beset him, but the reader doesn't find out who, what, when, where, and why until the book is almost over.

What we do learn from the beginning is that Joe is the head of the police department, such as it is, in Port Monro, a place where he knows everyone and how they are kith and kin to each other. One of his cousins may operate on the shady side, but he's family. His mother is crazy as a loon, but she, too, is family. His brother is a young professional in Melbourne and we don't really learn a lot about him initially, but, hey, he's family as well. Anyway, the story's not really about them, but it is very much about Joe and his relationship to Port Monro and the memories the place stirs up for him, including those involving his family. The past is very much alive for Joe. Perhaps it's because the present holds only horrors for him, and he'd rather not think about it.

The book, of course, is about Joe's coming to terms with his past and his present.

Temple ties together wonderful elements of rural life, big city and small town corruption, and the unspeakably dark things of which humans are capable.

There is such richness of material, that I could go on and on with a synopsis, so I'll merely do the bare bones. A local rich and important man is murdered and apparently robbed. To investigate this event, Cashin must deal with the police force in the next town over and his old buddies in Melbourne. When a few kids from the local slum are implicated, race becomes an issue. There are the requisite deep, dark secrets, evasive personalities, racists, and love interest. Also, Cashin meets a swaggie (wandering hobo), Rebb, who helps Cashin fulfill his dream of rehabilitating his grandfather's ruined mansion. Plus Cashin's poodles (!) really like Rebb. What more could you want?

You could want style, and, if so, you've got it by the "ute"-full here. Temple must believe less is more, because his writing is poetically spare: each word counts. However, there are 350 pages, so he doesn't stint on the story. He doesn't overdo telling his readers what people are thinking; he'd much rather sketch and imply. His dialogue is sometimes vague or abrupt. Like so:
She left. Cashin put his head back, heard the messages from his tired places.
And again:
'Fin, looking at you,' said Cashin, 'I'm giving you a nine-point-six on the over-worked, under-slept, generally-[expletive]-over scale.'

Finucane smiled the small modest smile of a man whose efforts had been recognized. 'Thanks, boss,' he said.

'Want a transfer to Port Monro?' said Cashin. 'Just pub fights and sheep-shagging, the odd [expletive] nicks his neighbour's hydroponic gear officially used to grow vine-ripened tomatoes. It's a nice place to bring up kids.'

'Too exciting,' said Finucane. 'I've got six blokes to see on Pollard. This one in Footscray, he says he goes back a long way. Probably turn out he rang from his deaf and dumb auntie's house, where he isn't and doesn't live.'
One for the road:
A thin, lined woman wearing a dark tracksuit answered his knocks. Cashin said the words, offered the ID.

'Round the back,' she said, 'In the shed.'
Temple takes a difficult subject (not telling what it is, you have to read the book, sorry) and gives it a sort of elegiac grace, even as it moves towards a violent and grotesque resolution.

Temple has written a bunch of novels, but this is the only one we are able to get with any regularity. What a pity!

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