Bush Sick Land
by Julian Barrett
It is the late sixties in south Waikato, a region of small towns and settlements, farmland and hydro-dams and exotic and native forests. Colin Coates is sole-charge constable in one of these small settlements, one where he has himself grown up. Two macabre deaths are about to cause problems for the policeman, and the investigations into these deaths are to reveal hidden secrets concerning other members of the community.
The unravelling of the mysteries surrounding these two deaths is, in essence, the plot of this novel, which is driven on mainly through dialogue. Coates has personal problems of his own, some of these exacerbated by the fact one of the dead was an old friend and the other is the son of an old flame, Phyllis. He drinks too much, he doesn’t seem to fully appreciate his extraordinarily understanding wife, and he is in danger of losing the confidence of his pre-teen son. He also has to deal with a know-it-all detective from Hamilton who is assigned to the case.
As events unfold, we are introduced to a number of other characters, including rival motorbike gangs, a wealthy forestry entrepreneur, a pharmacist with two personable daughters, a farmer who is convinced that his trousers left hanging on the washing line were incinerated by a passing sputnik, and a man who seems to have taken up residence in the loft of his house, obsessed with locating a non-existent leak in his roof. We learn of various goings-on, including strip-tease dancing at the local milk-bar, drug-taking of various sorts, an aborted rape, the possible sighting of a ghost, and an illicit love affair.
The book opens with a recounting of the legend of Hatupatu and his encounters with the fierce bird-woman, Kurungaituku/Kurangaituku. (In Māori legend, Kurungaituku captured the young man and kept him in her cave amongst her eviscerated prey – though he later escaped and led her to her death in the thermal springs.) This bird theme is revived at times throughout, with reference to the Harpies, to dismembered carcases, to an amateur taxidermist’s collection, and even to the self-destructing Phyllis’s boozy bird-themed drinking glasses.
There is certainly a lot going on in this book, and the author holds it all together rather well. There are moments of dark humour as well as horrifying descriptions. The prose is lively with some slick metaphors, most of which come off. The dialogue is carried on a little too long at times, but it mostly has a distinctive authenticity and is a reminder of just how bigoted and uninformed New Zealanders could be fifty or so years ago – and not only in rural communities. It is a bleak picture of life that is depicted here, with many of the accepted routines being fundamentally destructive.
This is a bizarre and gothic novel– yet oddly entertaining despite (or because of) that. And it has the perfect twist at the end. Nuff said.
Author: Julian Barrett
RRP: $ $24.99
Available: Formats: ebook and paperback. Available as a Kindle ebook (worldwide) and Amazon paperback (overseas only). In NZ, paperbacks are available from Browsers Bookshop and Auteur House in Hamilton or contact the author directly www.thepaintedclou.com firstname.lastname@example.org