Scrublands by Chris Hammer

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Reviewed by Wendy Lipke

The ideas for this novel were born when the author, Chris Hammer, was doing research for the non-fiction book, The River, during the height of the millennium drought in Australia in 2008-09. The author’s working life was that of a journalist covering Australian federal politics and international affairs, reporting from more than thirty countries on six continents. These experiences mean that he has a first-hand understanding of the many issues that arise in his novel, Scrublands, lending it authenticity.

The towns which form the setting for the novel are fictitious but could represent any outback towns in New South Wales during a severe drought. It is to the town of Riversend that jaded journalist, Martin Scarsden, has been sent to report on how the town has fared after the tragedy twelve months before when the local priest had shot five of the men of the town and been killed himself by the local policemen. What Martin finds as he arrives in this town is only a couple of shops open, and those, not every day in the week. The bank, the art gallery, the op shop, the real estate agent, the hair salon are shut permanently with the sun hanging over Riversend like a sentencing judge.

The story line is gripping and the book hard to put down. With each chapter comes another layer of complexity as well as clarity like peeling an onion, layer by layer, until finally the ‘why’ of what happened in this town, both twelve months ago and in the ten days Martin was there, is revealed. The story follows Martin, through all his ups and downs, as he tries to peel this onion.

Within twelve months this town has experienced four different crimes. Martin has discovered that they are ‘all separate but all interlinked, driven by greed and hate, guilt and hope: the drug operation, an instrument of atonement co-opted by bikies; the murder of the Germans, abuse spawning abuse; the shooting at St James (the previous year), innocents murdered with the best intentions’ and one of the townsfolk ‘attempting to expunge rape with fraud’ (472). There are cover-ups and assumed identities.

I must admit that as I was getting to the latter part of the book I was beginning to think that there were far too many different calamities to befall this tiny town, as apart from the crimes that were committed, the town experiences a bushfire, the hotel burnt down, and people supposedly committed suicide. But Hammer ties everything together beautifully in the end and all these disasters have a place.

But there is more to this novel than just the storyline. This book is also about people and why they do what they do. Hammer has introduced the impact of war on, not just those involved in the fighting but also those reporting. In this novel we learn about the possible negative effects of PTSS on behaviour.

Martin, himself has been sent on this mission to reconcile with his past, to recover from a trauma, ‘to rediscover his mojo’ (339).  Hammer has used the symbolism of Martin’s hands to show us his state of mind during his time in this outback town. When he first arrives he thinks his hands are ‘adolescent. White-collar hands, not working class hands, somehow inauthentic’ (11), not at all like the strong, assured, purposeful hands he remembers his father had at this age. While undertaking his role as reporter during his stay in this town, he again sees his hands as ‘useless…the hands of a witness, the hands of a note taker. Stained by time but unblemished by achievement’ (338).

After ten days in this town he has begun to understand that a journalist is supposed to be both a witness and an impartial observer, but he has become ‘the story and not the conveyor of it; part of the events and not just recording them. Somehow, accidentally, he has inserted himself into the very centre of events, (and for a second time in his life), into the vortex of a story sucking in the attention of the nation’ (339). He can no longer stand apart from life. He can now cry and not stand aloof and unmoved. And now when he looks at his hands they are ‘familiar once again, in no way special but in no way alien’ (473).

Just as Martin can now see what his past life had become, the reader is exposed to the behaviour of the press when trying to gain a scoop, the inflammatory words and innuendos, and how they treat individuals as ‘expendable, sacrificed on the altar of journalism’ (458).

I wholeheartedly recommend this book, for its crime story but also for the beautiful way it is written, for the insights into the ‘why’ things can happen and for its ease of reading.

Scrublands

(2018)

By Chris Hammer

Allen & Unwin

ISBN: 9781760632984

$32.99; 496 pp

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