Reviewed by Magdalena Ball
By Holly Throsby
Allen & Unwin
ISBN: 9781760293734, Oct 2016, 384 pages, Paperback
Holly Throsby’s debut novel Goodwood is a quirky joy. There is only one small line at the start to indicate that these are the recollections of Jean, the story’s protagonist, but this sense of distance adds a light touch of nostalgia throughout the novel. Jean takes us back to the year 1992, her last year of high school, when two people in Goodwood disappeared suddenly. Goodwood is a small town where everyone knows everyone else, and the impact of these disappearances is palpable, like an electric shock that runs through the town, lighting up the pubs and shops with theories, arguments, speculation and talk. The first person to go missing is Rosie White, a cool beautiful eighteen year old who Jean admired from a distance, and Bart McDonald, the local butcher and pillar of the community, known for buying really good presents for his wife and always doing the right thing. Little by little, clues start to emerge, and the truth come out in ways that correspond with Jean’s own growing awareness – not only of her own awakening but of what lurks beneath the veneer of everyday life.
Throsby has created a rich and likeable character in Jean, and though her point of view does alternate with the point of view of the local policeman Mack, a warmly avuncular figure in Jean’s life, one gets the sense that Mack’s story is still being filtered through Jean’s perspective, especially since Jean’s sections are in first person and Mack’s are in the third:
On his way home Mack drove back past the clearing, easing off down the road that ends in the cul-de-sac of trees. It has rained on Goodwood since the Corolla had been parked there. It had poured down—on the day that Roy and Derek Murray had their fight at Woody’s—and the ground offered no indication of tyre tracks or any other clues. Mack stood, as the trees sang with the birds, and felt as small as a wing among the ancient trunks and branches. (135)
Jean’s voice is richly developed, both in its narrative, and in the relationships she has with her pet Labrador Blackflip, her mother and grandmother, her best friend George, Ethan West, a boy from her high school that likes her, the local grocer, and the new girl Evie, whose family has just moved into the “funny-coloured house on Sooning Street.” Because Jean is quiet and observant, we experience Goodwood and its growing unrest through her perceptions and her pervasive voice which is simultaneously poetic and funny:
After that, a lot of things happened. There was a mess of conjecture, and a gret many theories and stoushes. Dozens of beer glasses were set down in misery, precious hopes were forsaken, and blood spilled from the most unlikely. All the while, gallons of brown water ran along the river, filled with fish, and surged under the bridge into the lake. (9)
The town of Goodwood is so well-created that it almost becomes a character. The townsfolk meld and merge together to become a kind of single organism, with the distinctive neuroses, a particular vernacular, and the way the town collectively navigates between the un-ease caused by the missing people and the familiarity and domesticity of their daily lives. The setting moves between familiar icons like the bowlo, the lake, the grocers, the library, the pub (“the Wicko” – what town doesn’t have a Wicko?), the community hall, the oval, and the food shops that make up the town making Goodwood into an Anytown Australia that most readers will recognise. Throsby handles the interface between the exterior world and dialogue and the interior changing world of the characters very subtly, weaving in clues like a connected series of bruises below the skin, including current affairs like the Belanglo murders, bits of song lyrics, and other current affairs to add a strong sense of verisimilitude. Though the story is driven along by the missing persons investigation which progresses to its conclusion, the outcomes becomes almost beside-the-point as Jean transitions into adulthood and finds her own sensuality. Another key thread is the undercurrent of violence and family dysfunction, which begins to surface in unexpected places, providing a dark and somber balance to the humour of the Goodwood Progress Association, the clumsy neighbor Fitzy, and the local branch of the New South Wales Country Women’s Association with its political hijinks and bad jam.
Mack himself is an enticing character, struggling with his own PTSD and attempting to do the right thing in spite of his own pain and insecurities – something Throsby handles delicately, without allowing the reader to forget that emotional damage can be transcended, and that pain doesn’t provide a justification for causing others pain. He is a perfect foil to the toxic masculinity of some of the more antagonistic characters. Goodwood doesn’t pursue the path of a traditional mystery novel and those looking for a heart–racing style whodunnit built around the two disappearances might be disappointed. The shock of those events is a catalyst here for deeper explorations of what lurks below the surface and how we create meaning in our lives in this tender, rich, and deeply enjoyable book.