In the Clearing by J.P. Pomare

Reviewed by Rod McLary

The epigraph to this new book by JP Pomare is a quote from the infamous Anne Hamilton-Byrne: I love children.  Hamilton-Byrne was the leader of the notorious cult called ‘The Family’ which existed in the 1970s and 1980s in Australia.  She ‘acquired’ children whom she later adopted and to whom she gave the surname Hamilton-Byrne.  As readers will soon discover as they begin this book, the quote is used egregiously.

The history of The Family was the inspiration for JP Pomare’s book; but it is not a re-telling.  It is its own story with enough twists and turns in its plot to satisfy any aficionado of psychological thrillers.

The book opens with the abduction of a young girl by three people in an old battered panel van as she walked home from school.  As the reader soon learns, she is destined to be one more child on the way to creating ‘the twelve’ – the magical number of children in a new cult.  The abduction occurs not far from where Freya lives with her young son Billy and a rottweiler called Rocky.  All three play important parts in the drama which unfolds.

Freya has created a comfortable albeit isolated life for herself and Billy – a life which gradually unravels as she feels increasingly threatened by figures from her past.  Freya lives in a state of constant alert and trusts almost no one.  As she says to herself early in the book: ‘Today is different.  I can feel it in my bones, feel it in the scar below my belly button.  The air is weighted. … Something is going to happen’ [11].

What does happen is a story of subtle cruelty and subterfuge – and later revenge.  Pomare has crafted a thrilling book centred not on the abduction of the child as set out in the first few pages but on the story of Freya.  Assumptions made by the reader as s/he makes way through the book are destined to be thrown aside as further details of Freya’s past intrude on the present.

In his first book My Name is Evie [also reviewed in these pages], JP Pomare told the story of Evie – not her real name – who was taken to New Zealand to escape the consequences of something she had been told she did in Melbourne.  It was a story where not much on the surface of things could be accepted.  While it had its flaws, My Name is Evie was a good read and showed considerable promise.  While In the Clearing shares some themes with the earlier book: dishonesty, subterfuge, implied and, on occasions, real threats, and the difficulty of knowing what is true – the story is quite different and more of a thriller than the first book.

While the main plot involves Freya and her increasingly frantic responses to the threats from her past, there is also a secondary plot which involves her older son whom she has not seen for many years.  From time to time, the two plots brush up against each other as the author tells the story and, in an unexpected twist, eventually and suddenly collide.  The way this is done is both skilful and heart-stopping and, when it happens, the reader gets a glimpse of Freya’s future.  It is not one to look forward to – although Freya does not yet know that.

There is also the story of Amy who lives in the Clearing and her story is told through alternate chapters from those which tell Freya’s story.  There is no indication of the timeframe in which Amy lives and this adds a certain tension to the primary story.  The author skilfully juggles these stories and the reader never feels lost or confused as to where s/he is.  Again, there is a dénouement towards the end which suddenly reveals who Amy is and where she fits.  Something for the reader to look forward to!

The cover of the book – a silhouetted photograph of a young girl set against a backdrop of trees and shrubs – is evocative and hints at what is coming in the book.  The cover is a little reminiscent of Frederick McCubbin’s 1886 painting Lost and suggests, as the painting does, a child lost in the Australian bush never to be seen again.

In the Clearing is a book well worth the reading and its quality and assuredness of touch suggests that there are greater books still to come from this new author in the thriller genre.

JP Pomare is an award-winning author whose previous work has been published in literary journals.  His first book won the Ngaio Marsh Award for best first novel.  He was born in New Zealand but now lives in Melbourne.

In the Clearing

[2019]

by J P Pomare

Hachette Australia

ISBN 978 1 86971 339 3

321pp; $32.99

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