Book Review: An Isolated Incident by Emily Maguire

Annabel Crabb recently talked about Emily Maguire on her podcast with Leigh Sales, Chat 10 Looks 3  (which I love!). I hadn’t really heard much about Emily Maguire before, although her first book was published in 2004. Sorry Emily! Anyway, since I read The Dry by Karen Harper a few weeks ago, I’ve been exploring what Australia has to offer in the way of female crime writers.

Emily’s latest book, An Isolated Incidentrevolves around the murder of Bella Michaels, a 25 -year-old small town darling who is killed in a most brutal way. The book never goes into great detail about the nature of her death, instead the incident is implied through others’ reactions to it. This was an interesting take, as it avoids the gruesome details but allows the reader’s imagination to fill in the blanks.

The book tells the story of Bella’s older sister, Chris, a bartender in the small town of Strathdee.

These were the parts of Strathdee the tourists never saw, lined with red-brick and fibro rentals with squat steel fences out front…I exchanged glances with a chain-smoking teenager half watching two toddlers beating each other with plastic tools.

Chris is a hard-working, good-natured woman who before her sister’s murder had wanted little more than a house she could own for herself. Bella’s murder sends her deep into depression. She is filling in the blanks in the same way that we do as we read through the story, and it is understandably driving her to despair.

The impact Bella’s murder has on Chris’s life is profound, and it’s heightened by the media attention that follows. This aspect of the novel rang true of many murder investigations familiar to us here in Australia – Anita Cobby, Jill Meagher, Stephanie Scott. The media attention around these cases was intense, and this novel strives to highlight the effect this has on the family around the victim. The constant harassment, and the debate over using the media to garner information versus having to go through such a private suffering so publicly,  are things Chris battles with daily.

These issues are particularly crystallised through the perspective of May Norman, an investigative reporter who finds herself drawn into the story, even after the attention from rival reporters has died down. Eventually their stories intertwine and Chris finds an unexpected friend in the young city girl.

I don’t want to give the ending away, so I won’t write much about it. I will just say that it’s an interesting take on a crime novel, particularly because the ending is so anti-climactic and I don’t mean that in a bad way. You’re never really directed to suspect particular characters, you never wonder – is that who did it? Instead you’re drawn into the story because of the impact on the small town mindset, the emotion it draws out of the characters, the fear and despair that exudes from the pages. That is where the power of the novel lies, and it is indeed powerful. It’s a great one for book clubs because there is so much you can talk about – the ending, the small-town life, the media, and the connections to those real-life cases. A fascinating, engaging read that felt, at times, a little too real.

Amanda

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