A review of All Those Bright Crosses by Ross Duncan

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

All Those Bright Crosses
By Ross Duncan
ISBN: 978-0-330-42325-0, July 2007, $22.95aud

The story of All Those Bright Crosses opens in the Twilight Homestay, Suva, Fiji, where Martin Flint is drinking Kava with Suli, a passing visitor — one of the many loss souls who populate Suva. The book is told as a kind of narrative flashback in which Martin recounts his journey from Sydney to Suva. Suli is the invisible listener, but he could easily be a metaphor for the reader, who is placed as the uneasy confidante to Martin’s tale of grief and self-reflection. Right from the start, the book creates this kind of intimacy with Martin narrating the story in first person, moving backwards in time until he catches up with himself. Martin’s temporary Fijian home, the Twilight, remains the background setting as we move through Martin’s story. The state of the Twilight reflects the state of Martin: “cheap, clean and although crumbling beyond repair, the rambling clapboard building has a certain faded colonial charm if you are willing to look at it closely and generously enough.” Martin may not be beyond repair, but nevertheless the story is one which forces the reader to look both closely and generously at human frailty, the nature of truth and the relationship between truth, deception and self-delusion. Despite his clear flaws, Martin is an attractive narrator whose self-deprecation endears him to the reader. The descriptions are lush and evocative, and Duncan demonstrates his mastery of that all too rare talent of showing rather than telling as he sucks the reader into the whirlpool of Martin’s addiction:

The meter tumbled down to forty credits. I sucked hard on my umpteenth cigarette, muttered curses. I ran my hands over my face, through my hair, brushing off the despair and fatigue that clung to me like the remnants of some giant cobweb I’d strayed into. I pulled my wallet from my back pocket, hit the reserve button, dismounted from the stool, and made my way to the automatic teller machine. (24)

As Martin recounts his story to the sleeping Suli, we learn about his gambling addiction, separation from his wife Angelica and the accidental death of his four year old daughter Cali. We also learn that he’s in Suva following a mad treasure hunt after finding a newspaper clipping about a lost chest of silver dollars hidden by a giant Swede Charlie Savage who lived on a Fiji island until he was drowned and eaten by tribesmen. The clipping was in a newspaper called ‘Truth,’ an irony that signals one of the major themes of this novel – a theme that fiction is particularly good at working with – the elusive nature of truth. Truth in this case, isn’t necessarily the simple retelling of facts, and indeed, the book makes it clear that the facts don’t always give us much of the story. The real truth is under the skin, in the way we’re stripped of all pretences, when everything falls away. It’s about what’s left in the face of the fast talking cons that surround us, from trendy restaurants, to the loud lure of poker machines, to the ineffectual attempt at soothing the all too real pain of the loss of a child. There’s something almost incessantly honest about Martin, and the complexity of this honesty being revealed through a long running lie is part of what makes this book works so well. His self-deprecation and almost intense desire to hurt himself to make up for the guilt he feels about his daughter is beautifully contrasted with the con-artists we encounter, from those that fleece the desperate gamblers at the aptly named Artisans Club, to the recently deceased miracle healer cum treasure investor Lester Delayne, from his stepmother’s harsh empty honesty, to the desperate beauty of Tabua, the young Fijian woman he meets, and tries to save. The book is full of these ironies and even minor characters like his colleague, the ambitious, truth sloppy Penelope. Martin’s sense of outrage at even the small details missed in the reporting of his daughter’s death make it clear that the media itself is sloppy with the truth, and equally sloppy with their presentation of humanity: “The real story, it seemed to me, was always more complex, more layered than the time and space constraints of journalism could do justice to.” (133)

By the end of the novel, the reader moves with Martin towards a kind of reconciliation with the self. Life is full of betrayal, large and small—everyone turns their head away from what matters at one point or another. As Martin struggles to find a way to live with himself, the actual facts of the story become less and less important. It doesn’t matter whether the Savage treasure actually exists – Martin finds his own treasure – somewhere between an acceptance that there is a kind of beauty and peace that endures even when everything else is stripped away. All Those Bright Crosses is a beautifully written debut — a tightly plotted, fast paced mystery that is driven forward by a deep and penetrating character study. The writing throughout is beautiful, spare and transcendent.

Listen to an interview with Duncan at The Compulsive Reader Talks.

About the reviewer: Magdalena Ball is the author of Sleep Before Evening, The Art of Assessment, and Quark Soup.