The Liars by Petronella McGovern

Reviewed by Rod McLary

The title of this book – brief as it may be – immediately flags what it is about: lies, untruths, evasions and secrets.  Set in the small seaside town of Kinton Bay somewhere near Newcastle NSW, the novel explores and exposes many of these lies and the truth is rather confronting.

The primary protagonist is Meri – a journalist with the local newspaper – who is married to Rollo with two children twins Taj and Siena.  Meri has lived her whole life in Kinton Bay and knows everyone and the secrets they are hiding not the least of which are the circumstances of the founding of the town.  Built on the blood of the Indigenous peoples of the area, the town is still wracked by toxic masculinity particularly demonstrated by some of the town’s leaders and perpetrated still by the current generation of young men.

But the novel explores themes beyond toxic masculinity – it also touches on the denial and rewriting of the history of the Indigenous peoples, sexual assault, gay hate crimes, teenage activism and the tension between female ambition and the responsibilities of caring for children.  While at first glance, this seems a great deal to incorporate into what is essentially a fictional work, the author generally manages the balance quite well.  On a couple of occasions, there is a misstep or two.  An example is the misdemeanours of Taj which seem to be written more to give him equal time with his activist sister rather than advancing the narrative.  However, these are minor matters.

But not all the males are toxic.  Rollo, who as a teenager was on the fringes of a group self-titled the Wrecking Crew, has now moved on and runs a successful business.  He attributes his redemption to Meri and his children whom he loves unreservedly.  It is interesting to observe his internal struggles between disclosing some of the events of the past and his – ultimately misguided – loyalty to those men who were once his teenage friends.

When Siena is assaulted by a fellow student at the place for parties and sexual assaults – the Killing Cave – and accidentally uncovers a skull which is initially thought to be of an Indigenous person, a series of events is unleashed which brings Rollo to question and ultimately discard his misguided loyalty.  Subsequently, the skull is found to be the remains of a missing local boy and when the remains of two more missing boys are located, Meri is determined to expose the secrets of the Wrecking Crew and the events which took place in the Killing Cave.  In doing so, she also needs to confront her own experience of sexual assault and the perpetrator who still lives in the town.

In her turn, Siena is equally determined to ensure that the true history of the local Indigenous peoples is acknowledged and brought to the attention of Kinton Bay – no more whitewashing of the past.

After a somewhat slow beginning as the characters and the social milieu are established, the narrative gains both pace and tension as it moves towards its denouement.  The loose ends are satisfyingly resolved and there is a belated acknowledgement of the true history of the town’s establishment and the crimes of the founder.

The author has crafted a novel which canvasses a range of topical issues and exposes how bad – and sometimes criminal – behaviour can be hidden beneath a shallow façade of respectability and more importantly by a fear of the personal consequences if the behaviour is exposed.  The story also highlights the courage of those people who do expose the secrets and lies; and especially the women who do so.  Kinton Bay in some ways is a microcosm of Australia in that the issues confronted through the telling of the story are those which confront Australia as a nation.

Petronella McGovern has written a story which resonates with courage and love – and a sense of the importance of family.  The Liars is a book to be read and enjoyed even if some of the events are shameful.

The author’s two previous books – Six Minutes and The Good Teacher – have been described as domestic noir and come with considerable psychological suspense.  The former was shortlisted for the Australian Crime Writers’ Association’s Ned Kelly Awards and longlisted for the Australian Booksellers Indie Book Awards; and the latter was longlisted for the Davitt Awards.

The Liars

[2022]

By Petronella McGovern

Allen and Unwin

ISBN 978 176087 924 2

$32.99; 424pp

Click here to read an interview with Petronella McGovern.

 

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