Stephanie Jones: Book Review - Goodwood by Holly Throsby

Publish Date
Friday, 18 November 2016, 11:59AM
By Stephanie Jones

Goodwood, in Holly Throsby’s staggeringly good debut novel of the same name, “was a peaceful town before the tragedies”, a bucolic world worthy of D H Lawrence in which people lived quietly, if not always happily, and died of natural causes. What the narrator Jean Brown describes in retrospect are the events of 1992, when two residents of Goodwood, 18-year-old Rosie White and the beloved local butcher Bart McDonald, disappear in a single week.

Jean is looking back on herself at 17, bright and observant, feeling her way into the world and learning about love and grief. She lives with her mother and her grandparents, and is close to her mother’s cousin, Mack, the local constable. Jean and her best friend, George, conduct the standard adolescent flirtations with local boys, but it is a new girl in town who may interest Jean more, and Throsby makes a graceful exploration of nascent, unexpected desire.

In Goodwood there are blissfully matched couples, and unhappy men and women, some of whom unleash violence in bedrooms and backyards. There are men around whom Jean instinctually steers a wide berth, and those – her grandfather, Bart McDonald – who represent a safe harbour. People are kind, and history is given the whitewash of euphemism where necessary: Mack’s father Lang, a Vietnam War veteran, died on his back porch while “cleaning his gun”. The town has its busy-bodies and secret-keepers, industrialists and problem-solvers, givers and takers: it is a microcosm of the world, somewhere in Australia. It is all Jean knows, or needs to – she has never even been to Melbourne, she confesses to a classmate.

Two days before the first vanishing, while walking her dog, Jean finds $500 hidden in a tree. She elects to leave the money where it is but monitor it and fantasize about how she would spend such a princely amount. When she checks again three days later, the money is gone, a plastic horse in its place. What connection, if any, does it have to the disappearances? She eventually fronts up to Mack, who is frustrated by her reticence but more by the hospital pass in his hands. There are no leads and the only obvious suspect, Rosie’s boyfriend, is quickly ruled out. As Mack will learn, the disappearances are connected because everyone in the town is connected, and people who live cheek-by-jowl – emotionally as much as socially – cannot conceal much for long.

Throsby favours pared-back description and has a penchant for a lively similes and metaphors: an aghast father looks “as grave as a deep hole” as he regards his awful son; the popular wife of the missing man, referred to by all as ‘Mrs Bart’, has the “face of a morning television presenter”. And amid Goodwood’splentiful wit are moving snapshots of humanity: two bereaved women sitting silently, holding hands; the elaborate gift-giving of a devoted husband.

Throsby makes a conscientious study of a small town’s experience of grief and horror, and of the unanswered questions that accompany unexpected death. Goodwood is nuanced, compassionate and heavy with suspense, and bolstered by Throsby’s uncannily precise channeling of Jean’s personality and intellect. The deceptively complex engine of the mystery-cum-bildungsroman story doesn’t miss a turn. A striking first novel by a writer who blends archness with compassion in a most entertaining manner.

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