Darkness Runs Deep by Claire McNeel

Reviewed by Wendy Lipke

Claire McNeel is a fifth-generation football supporter who believes that women belong in the action not just on the sidelines. A former registered nurse and researcher, with a PhD in Neuroscience, she was a finalist for Best Screenplay at the Byron Bay International Film Festival, and this screenplay formed the basis for her debut novel Darkness Runs Deep.

The setting for this novel is a country town that seems to have lost its soul. For it, the growth which occurred in its larger neighbour had caused it to ‘fall further behind, as though someone had hit pause, and they were just waiting for permission to get moving’ (265). This sentiment was no more evident than in the sporting arena.

The reason for this lethargy did not become clear immediately. In the Prologue, it is evident that something terrible had happened in the recent past, but the reader has to wait till approximately halfway through the book to find out what. There are two storylines in this novel, yet they are closely linked not just through relationships within the community but also through the love of football and the desire of a few women to play the game.

The diversity of personalities in the town is evident, and few can hide their negative attitudes and actions. Yet there is also a strong sense of caring especially around children growing up. After the Prologue, the dominant storyline concerns the establishment of a woman’s footy team against much opposition. These chapters become a countdown to Game Day. The other chapters in the novel enlighten the reader about the lives of many of the town’s folk especially the younger inhabitants through their school years. Several of these people have left the town but are still dearly missed and some issues are unresolved. After a serious incident on the oval, football had been suspended in the town. It had only ever been men’s football. The women, though strong supporters, were not allowed to play.

Bess O’Neill had left to become a teacher but takes leave to return home. On a night out with her friend, Jules, she accepts a dare to try to create a women’s footy team. Jules believed that Bess was the one to bring about change for the town where many residents had withdrawn into themselves, and a sense of community had been lost. The town needed something to look forward to rather than being burdened by what had happened some months earlier. Although Bess was compelled to carry out the dare, she did not have the belief that she could see it through to its conclusion. She knew there would be much opposition, especially from her father.

There are more characters who impact on this story than I could keep track of and not knowing what had happened earlier to cause such a dark cloud to fall over the town was making it harder for me to understand the tension in the town. For those who follow football, the detail provided in the practice sessions would have more meaning than it did for me, but this was an interesting story with deep insight into the dynamics at play in a small locality. Primarily it is a tribute to women’s football and acknowledges that anyone who wants to be part of football, in whatever capacity, should be allowed to feel that they belong.

Darkness Runs Deep

(2024)

by Claire McNell

Pan Macmillan

ISBN:978-1-76126-821-2

$34.99; 320pp

 

 

 

 

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