Stark, the small west Australian coastal town which is the setting for Sam Carmody’s debut novel, The Windy Season, is fictitious. But as anyone who has travelled off the tourist track to the more remote parts of Australia can attest, it exists under a number of aliases. It’s just the kind of town which might, to the outsider, at first seem attractively unusual. But it doesn’t take long to reveal its real character, an undercurrent of menace that makes you look over your shoulder when walking down the road, even on a sunny day.
Stark is the kind of town where society’s flotsam and jetsam turn up. A human gyre. The wounded and the wounders. This is a place where people really do just disappear. Because they want to. Or sometimes because someone else wants them to.
Paul travels to Stark trying to find out what has happened to his older brother, Elliot. For two years Elliot has been crewing on The Arcadia, a cray boat skippered by his cousin, Jake then going travelling when the season’s over. Now he’s vanished. The family hasn’t heard from him. Nor has his girlfriend. He isn’t answering his phone.
Reluctantly, he agrees to let Paul join the crew and he is quickly befriended by another crew member Michael. A German, the son of a wealthy but domineering father, he becomes his teasing mentor with a fascination for the ever-present sharks. Life on the boats is physically tough and inherently dangerous. There are coiled ropes and winches to flick the unwary overboard.
On land the other sharks prowl. When not at sea, the crews have little to do but get drunkenly dangerous at the pub, or fry their brains with drugs, particularly ice distributed by the bikie gangs.
As well as Paul’s narrative there is also an unidentified voice (although we draw our own conclusions) that tosses little hand grenades of clues. Seemingly at the heart of the bikies’ drug business the man is chillingly matter of fact about the careless brutality of life travelling with a senior gang member known only as the President.
Then one day, The Arcadia makes a grisly find. One that seems to shatter any hope Paul still had of finding Elliot alive. But the ocean has more surprises in store, ones that put Paul himself in danger.
I raced through The Windy Season in two marathon sessions. The short sentences and realistic language draw the reader in. The characters, with a few minor exceptions, have an air of authenticity (I particularly liked Jules, the worn down owner of the pub and Fred, the out-of-town cop who knows how the game is played). Carmody carefully controls the swells of tension and isn’t letting us off the hook completely, even at the end.
I’d be surprised if it The Windy Season isn’t snapped up for a TV series or movie. Camody has a flair for the undestated scary and has come up with an internationally-attractive thriller without losing any of its unique Aussieness.
Finally a couple of quibbles, both subjective, neither relating to the power of the story. I really didn’t like the cover which I think undersells the book. Why the emphasis on The? Also, whilst I understand the need to differentiate between the narrators, I found the switch from serif type to sans a little jarring. Like footnotes.
The Windy Season by Sam Carmody is published by Allen & Unwin. It was longlisted for the 2014 Australian/Vogel’s Literary Award. Carmody is an award winning songwriter and lecturer in creative writing In Darwin.