Banjawarn by Josh Kemp

Reviewed by Rod McLary

Gothic literature has been part of the literary canon since the eighteenth century.  Common elements include dark and picturesque scenery, startling and melodramatic literary devices and an overall feeling of mystery, fear and dread.  A further element – especially apposite in relation to this novel – is the intrusion of the past upon the present.  Perhaps one of the greatest exponents of gothic literature was Edgar Allen Poe who, in his stories, explored the mysteries of psychological trauma, human evil and mental illness.

Fast forward 200 years or so and we now have an excellent example of Australian Gothic in this brilliant debut novel by Josh Kemp.  All the established gothic elements are present which together in Banjawarn create a chilling horror story set in the outback of Western Australia.  To underscore the horror, the story is immersed in the Australian landscape which is so palpably drawn as to almost become a character itself as in: A white cypress twists in the soft white granite, and he emerges into this, wild-eyed and the only living thing making sound without the utterance of wind [207].

The novel’s protagonist Garreth Hoyle has recently published a best-selling ‘true crime’ novel based on his experiences on a sheep station called Banjawarn and, in his own words, ‘he is now rich’.  At Banjawarn, he worked alongside Turk and Stella, Clay, and Kerryn who became his family for a time until Turk’s and Stella’s son Eddy went missing and was never found.  Clay also shared with Garreth stories of his Indigenous people and these stories – and that of Eddy’s disappearance – found their way into Garreth’s novel.

Garreth is now a very damaged and troubled man and a drug addict with ‘a lot of locked doors in his head’; his psychologist has said to him ‘it was best if these doors are never opened’ [21].  But, as in the best of gothic literature, the past intrudes on the present and his mind has a mind of its own.  One memory forces its way through its locked door and resonates through the novel until its full disclosure towards the end.  It is sufficient to say that it involves a starving seven-year-old boy locked in a bathroom for his ‘safety’.  When a can of baked beans is emptied on the floor for him to eat and a starving dog enters the room, the outcome can only be horrific.

The author has cleverly mirrored incidents in the present with some in the past.  Mirroring the above incident is Luna – a ten-year-old girl – locked in a toilet in a drug house by her ‘carer’ to protect her from predatory males while the carer injects drugs.  But, Luna is rescued by Garreth when he finds the carer dead of an overdose.  Fortunately, Luna feels – and is – perfectly safe with Garreth and together they travel back to Banjawarn where unknown to them further horrors await.

The novel is replete with dangerous and fearsome characters who, as Garreth reflects, are only waiting for the opportunity for the devil in them to find expression.  And as the novel progresses, there are many opportunities for their devils to be expressed.  The concluding chapters of the novel explode in violence perpetrated by Garreth’s erstwhile friends as payback for his disloyalty to and betrayal of them.  Even Luna has her own dangerous characters to contend with – two brothers aged 10 and 12 for whom their mother demands of Luna: ‘anything they ask for, you will provide.  And I mean anything.  Yes?’ [366].

As the landscape and the natural world figure so strongly in this novel, the last word should go to the mother dingo who is seeking food for her and her pups close to Banjawarn.  This dusty country out here can be tough.  Meals few and far between. … When things get dire, something always shows up in time. [416].  What shows up is best left to the reader to discover.

Banjawarn is a novel which is relentless in its tension and gothic horror.  The story is one which will stay with the reader long after the novel is read.  It is a fine example of gothic literature and is imbued with a powerful Australian flavour and character.  Well recommended for readers who appreciate challenging and sometimes confronting literature of quality.

Banjawarn was the winner of the 2021 Dorothy Hewett Award for an Unpublished Manuscript and is Josh Kemp’s debut novel.  His short stories have been published by Kill Your Darlings, Overland, Seizure, Tincture and Breach and he has been shortlisted for the Kill Your Darlings Unpublished Manuscript Award and longlisted for the Fogarty Literary Award.

Banjawarn

[2022]

by Josh Kemp

UWA Publishing

ISBN 978 17608 214 1

$32.99; 500pp

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