Reviewed by Ian Lipke
Emma Viskic does not wait to make an impact. On the first page a street bum gives handicapped Caleb Zelic a brief note, and the action is underway. The murder of a young woman follows and Caleb investigates. Deaf since childhood, and struggling with life’s challenges, Caleb is upset by the callous nature of the crime. His sense of outrage is fuelled by his own personal problems, not least of which are PTSD, recurrent nightmares, and the loss of his wife who cannot take any more of the challenges that living with him presents.
Caleb’s investigations lead him from the city back to Resurrection Bay where he confronts a town riddled with racial tension, drug dealing and violence. Life here is raw and emotions run high. Police question Caleb’s involvement in their investigations. They are as brutal as the criminals who vandalise property and peddle drugs. Caleb pushes on with his investigations, putting himself and members of his family, including his estranged wife, in danger. The denouement to this tale of small town- intermingled with big city-crime is unexpected.
I doubt that any novelist less skilful than Emma Viskic could pull this off. A very close observer of life in small towns and cities, Emma has won more awards than most people her age. Her Resurrection Bay, a debut novel, won the 2016 Ned Kelly Award for Best First Fiction and three Davitt Awards for Best Adult Novel, Best Debut, and Readers’ Choice. She has international awards to her credit, is a classically trained clarinettist and in preparation for this novel, taught herself sufficient sign language to be competent in AUSLAN.
And Fire Came Down is not a story meant to soothe and charm. It explores issues of identity and loss. It is brutal and harsh and unforgiving. Its hero is unlike any other. He is a man, confronting his demons in a cross-cultural mix where nobody stands by in support. Most regard him as dim, not realising that it is his deafness that makes him appear so. A crime has been committed but nobody seems to care. His privacy is invaded, he is set upon, and an attempt to murder him comes close to success. However he is unable to show that he cares for his kin and takes on a project that is peripheral to the source of his own problems. By addressing the crime he can put his deteriorating family responsibilities on hold. He is reckless and unprepared to take advice:
Mate, you need to drop this now. The Copperheads aren’t a bunch of country hicks – they run most of the drugs and sex trade from Geelong to Adelaide. If you keep wandering around your hometown asking questions about them, they’re going to hear about it. And when they do, they’re going to stomp on you. Do you know what they did to the last guy who got in their way? They tortured him to death with a blowtorch. And he was a cop (193).
Caleb Zelic is the only character that is developed to any extent. Most of the others flit through the pages coming and going but serving always to illuminate in some way the character of the protagonist or assist in bringing about the next phase in the tale. Readers of Resurrection Bay will know the relationship that Kat and Frankie share with Caleb. Others may have to work a bit. Among the secondary characters Caleb’s brother Anton is given greatest exposure. Caleb eventually recognises that Ant has taken control back from the drugs that formerly dictated his life and is devastated by what happens to his brother. Life requires tough love and Caleb receives (and dispenses) it. In this the relationships between Caleb and his wife’s family stand out.
This book is a product that reflects the writer’s generation. It is a book that could never have been written in the mid-twentieth century, not because it relies on material things invented since then but because of its ultramodern spirit and a difference in values. The book supplies the next phase in the Caleb Zelic story that began with Resurrection Bay. Readers, who gave the earlier novel a ringing endorsement, will want to read this one. They will not be disappointed. It does not surprise me to hear that women over thirty make up the greatest part of its reading public, but the book is sufficiently broad that it will appeal to most readers. Despite examples of very direct, even coarse, language, the cadences and patterns in the voices of the characters reflect the sharp bursts of dialogue that characterise Australian speech.
The prose tends not to pause awhile over something beautiful or needing description. It is terse, grainy, unrelenting in pursuit of plot. The sex scene on page 148, while beautiful, contains little of the wonder of sex. The interaction between the players finishes with, “We’d better wash off,” she said. “Or we’ll be finding sand for years.” She strode away” (150).
This is not adverse criticism. The book is simply of its generation and extremely well written. The author juggles a polyglot mixture of characters in a well planned and executed presentation. They don’t hang about – they follow a ‘get on with it’ lifestyle that makes convincing reading. Their speech patterns complement the general tone of the writing:
Not stupid enough, smart enough. Honey’s pretty sharp. Leaving a voice message is a great way of putting me off her scent. Get’s a friend to ring in case it’s you or Kat listening to the message, and she’s all set” (229).
The writing is abrupt, sharing a similarity with messaging via a mobile phone. It is not the relaxed style that writers like Michael Connelly or John Grisham can produce. It doesn’t have to be. It’s different, not diminished. It is of today.
Overall – well worth the read!
By Emma Viskic