This Shelf Indulgence book review focuses on Scrublands, Chris Hammer’s debut. In the searing heat of Australia’s ‘Millennium Drought’, journalist Martin Scarsden comes to a small country town aptly named Riversend one year after charismatic priest, Byron Swift, gunned down five local men.
Sifting through the ashes of a community ravaged by a decade-long drought, and burdened by the notoriety caused by the killings, Scarsden asks questions, forms unexpected affiliations, and discovers that nothing is as it seems. Until the shooting, Father Swift was well-liked in the town—even by the cranky local kids—and the police officer who shot him dead had counted him a friend. But why did a priest have an entire artillery of guns? Are the rumours that he was a pederast true? And why should this interest Australia’s security intelligence service? Scarsden slowly pieces together the puzzle and becomes convinced that the town harbours even darker secrets.
This immersive whydunnit evokes vividly the devastation of a seemingly endless drought, the desperation of a dying town, and the destructiveness of journalists out for a story at any cost. Hammer’s description of a bushfire is visceral and terrifying, but one of the great surprises for me was that it’s possible to survive such a fire—a lesson which could stand as an allegory for the resilience of Riversend’s townsfolk. Scrublands is satisfyingly twisty tale with a strong sense of place—a perfect summer read. Just remember to keep plenty of bottled water to hand.
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