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Hilary T. Smith
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Bryan Peterson

Darkwater

Darkwater - Georgia Blain Darkwater is a languid, atmospheric novel about murder and coming of age in 1970s Australia. It draws much of its strength from Blain’s use of setting; she paints an authentic and vivid picture of life in that time: summer days swollen with heat, the tick of ceiling fans through the interminable school hours, front doors left open and unlocked, skateboarding and joints under the underpass.It’s an accurate rendering of a different time, and Blain’s attention to detail is notable, though I do wonder why she chose to place the story at this point in history. Possibly because it mirrors Winter’s own position on the cusp of innocence and naivety to something more self-aware. Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch makes an appearance, along with environmental activism and local politics muddied with money, markers of a community undergoing change and churning with unrest. Or maybe it’s the less sophisticated approach to crime investigation that lends itself to the story, perhaps a contemporary setting would have significantly curtailed the process, preventing the mystery of Amanda Clarke’s death from drawing out like languorous summer evenings.In Darkwater, Winter chronicles how the discovery of Amanda’s body impacts her small, suburban world. Winter is an observer, recording the reactions and changes she notices around her as the community attempts to come to terms with the tragedy. Younger than Amanda’s core group of friends, Winter is on the periphery of things, writing down what scraps of information she can glean, attempting to piece together a picture of what really lead to Amanda’s body floating in the river.None of the characters feel particularly close, as if by setting the story some time ago, a distance with the reader has been preserved. Even Winter, who narrates in first person, feels somewhat aloof at times. Perhaps this was the point, to keep the focus firmly on the shocking event that rocks the community – but Amanda is also a shadowy figure. We’re given second-hand glimpses of her through other characters, but we never become close to her. We see her through the lens of envy, lust, adoration or frustration. We’re given insight into a home life that is substantially less charmed than it outwardly appears. Yet she isn’t a dynamic character in the story; she’s a figure, a symbol, a catalyst for the ripples that spread out through her hometown.The central mystery itself – in all honesty – I didn’t find terribly compelling. While the question of who killed Amanda hangs over the story, I thought its most powerful scenes were those depicting the small moments between Winter and her friends, Sonia and Cassie. In these, Blain captures the awkwardness of adolescence, the fumbling of the characters as they navigate their way through crushes, drugs, sex and death. It’s handled frankly and with a distinct lack of melodrama – Blain presents these events as realities of life, not as fodder to shock.The resolution of the mystery felt a little like it fell back on convenient plot points – the seeds of who the perpetrator is and how it will be revealed are planted fairly obviously. That said, I get the impression that the crime itself is not strictly the point of the story, but rather its effects on those surrounding it. Blain shows how the insidious creep of prejudice and paranoia drives people apart, how suspicion and grief unravel relationships and families.Blain’s writing has a slightly lulling quality about it, or maybe it was the lethargy of the setting seeping through. The pacing is sedate, focused on character development more than action, but there’s a note of disquiet that keeps the story engaging. The technique of opening the majority of the chapters with a “Fact” or “Theory” from Winter’s notebook initially seemed intriguing, but it did grow tedious after a while.Darkwater is a quiet story, steeped in mood and atmosphere. While the pacing and logic of the plot are not without flaws, it’s an candid depiction of one girl’s coming of age in a time of tragedy and social change.