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Place is just one part of the story in Australian fiction

Many small towns are experiencing a renaissance as city dwellers make the move from metropolitan centres to places like Castlemaine, Kyneton and Woodend. In these places, they see tree-lined streets, tight communities and an escape from the pressures of the city.

However, I wonder how well these tree-changers really know about their new neighbours and communities.

A new breed of books suggests that the country lifestyle might not be as idyllic as it might seem, and that the same suspicions, rivalries and secrecy that they experienced in Melbourne are alive and well far from its sprawl.

The Dry is set on Australia’s distinctive farmland, where mates gather for drinks at the local pub, while The Choke was set on the banks of the peaceful Murray River. And I’ll leave it to you to work out the location of Wimmera. From the crackly undergrowth of the bush to the unstoppable flow of the Murray, these landscapes are recognisable, and even emblematic of our outdoor lifestyle and natural bounty, to many Australians.

However, the very familiarity of these places highlights the extraordinary lives and experiences of the characters who live there; set against a world the reader feels they know, the plot is all the more surprising, and unsettling, whether in the specter of domestic violence, racism or sexual abuse.

In The Choke, the peaceful bushland in which the main character, Justine, lives is juxtaposed with the hostile and chaotic social environment in which she lives. Brought up by her grandfather in a small house beside the Murray, her mother had left her, while her father was an occasional and volatile presence in her life. For me, the setting was one of recreation and beauty, while for Justine, they were a pitiful reality of isolation and poverty. Again, there was a simmering sense of violence, including sexual violence, throughout the book.

The small farming town where The Dry is set is interchangeable with any number of similar drought-stricken communities. These towns remind me of those I have passed through on family holidays, perhaps on my way to Mildura or the Gold Coast. However, the reality depicted in Jane Harper’s book, for those who live in these small communities, is far more sinister.

In the stark and dry beauty of the Australian farming landscape, there are the families engaged in generation-long feuds with their neighbours, the out-of-towners trying to make a new start and the bar flies on the lookout for a fight. A sense of suspicion and mistrust pervades the town, due to old grievances and a new tragedy. The warmth and mateship of Australian legend are hard to decipher behind the grim reality.

In Wimmera, it is not just the setting in a regional Victorian town that is familiar, but also the experience of childhood lived in a small community, exemplified in 11-year-old Ben’s favourite activities of yabbying and BMXing. However, the tragic departure of Ben’s story from the carefree youth that the reader might remember themselves, when a crime quietly and thoroughly upends his life, is in stark contrast with the familiar environment in which the story is set. The contrast makes Ben, and his friend, Fab’s, story all the more heartbreaking.

However, while the setting of these books can make the stories even more accessible, striking and meaningful to readers, in some of my favourite books, a similar sense of familiarity is present even in the most foreign places.

That is part of the beauty of literature. Readers can be forced to reconsider their perceptions of a place and its people, beyond the beauty and obvious charm of a place. In many ways, the local can be as unfamiliar as any foreign country, explored more deeply. In this way, literature can reshape our perspectives and make us question our assumptions, looking beyond the surface to the more complex reality.

In The Dry, The Choke and Wimmera, the surprising and unexpected was set among the familiar, forcing me to take another look at those brittle, dry and beautiful landscapes and the communities within them. And just like any place, there is far more that what initially meets the eye.


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