For today’s post, I’m reviewing a book by Isobel Blackthorn, an award-winning writer who I recently met online, and who shares my enthusiasm for dark fiction. Not all of her work is of the macabre variety, and I went in to The Legacy Of Old Gran Parks completely blind, but after the blistering opening I knew I was in for a ghoulish thrill-ride!
(Please be warned that, although I’ll do my best to avoid them, there will inevitably be some minor spoilers ahead.)
Four troubled women. One restless spirit.
The introduction tells the story of Gloria, a victim of spousal abuse who snaps one day and buries a cleaver in her villainous husband’s skull. This gruesome preface closes with one of the many, many great lines that are sprinkled throughout the book like scattered drops of blood: ‘It took two more blows to kill him. Another twenty to hack him in half.’
In some ways, it’s a shame that the book reveals its grisly intentions so early, as the first two thirds of the novel proceed at a deliciously slow, dread-infused pace. I think this approach was necessary, however, as we slowly realise that Gloria is the titular Gran Parks herself, a dead woman whose spirit lingers in the hotel that was once her home, haunting the crossroads of Cann River and imbuing the backwater burg with a sense of inevitable brutality.
Cann River is a real town where the author actually spent some time, situated deep in the barely-tamed wilderness of the Australian bush. She has brilliantly reimagined it here as an eerie boondocks, the book’s 1983 setting taking us back way before mobile phones and internet connections, making Cann River’s denizens feel utterly isolated and emphasising their intimidating, quirky culture and daily routines. The town’s only policeman is an incompetent drunk, neatly removing the troublesome presence of law enforcement from the unfolding tale.
It is into this lawless melting pot that the first of four POV characters unwittingly blunders, when her car breaks down en route to a new life far from the bushfires that destroyed her home and killed dozens of her neighbours. Middle-aged local government pencil-pusher Miriam is a fish out of water in Cann River, determined to leave as soon as the slow-witted local mechanic can fix her defective vehicle. The flashbacks to Miriam’s harrowing experiences are superbly described, the ‘boom, boom, boom’ of exploding gas canisters one of many memorable images conjured in the novel.
Miriam is forced to stay in the hotel while awaiting a part for her car, and this setup allows us to gradually learn more about the town and its cast of captivating characters: the hotelier Cassie, who believes her establishment is haunted by the ghost of Gran Parks herself; Con, the afore-mentioned mechanic who works at the roadhouse across from the hotel and is just as bad at baking the daily selection of ‘gourmet’ pies as he is at fixing automobiles; Pat, his scheming mother, who rules the roadhouse with an iron fist; and Emily, the downtrodden waitress whose pay packet always seems just light enough to keep her trapped in servitude. Emily is one of our other POV characters, as is Pearl, the hard-as-nails grandmother who lives up the street, and Frankie, the hard-as-even-harder-nails deer hunter whose shack is in the opposite direction.
These four women, each a survivor in her own way, are thrown into a tumultuous alliance when the town’s uneasy, pie-scented equilibrium is threatened by the arrival of various unsavoury men: a rapist, a drug-dealer, a child abductor, and a cancer victim who may have something to hide. The unfolding, darkly comedic story is perfectly paced, utterly unpredictable, and morally ambiguous; at several points I found myself unable to decide whether I agreed with a character’s choices. Each of the four leads feels totally distinct, and the chapters are short enough that we never have time to get bored of inhabiting each of their troubled minds. It’s amusing to see each one making assumptions about the others, sometimes quickly refuted, others reaffirmed.
There are strong feminist overtones at play here, and the book underlines these when Frankie talks about her apiary, and how the female worker bees kick the useless drones out of the hive. But this subtext never feels heavy-handed or superfluous; the book does not tell us that all men are assholes, just some men, contrasting the unpleasant characters that arrive in Cann River with the heroes that rescued people from the bushfires. I didn’t find myself mired in questions of gender politics as I tore through this gripping novel; I liked the strong female main characters, disliked the male antagonists, and was eager to find out what fates befell them all.
Along with its compelling story and intriguing cast, the author utilises some terrific descriptive writing to really bring her story and setting to life. Cann River’s various locales – the lighthouse, the river, the roadhouse, Frankie’s butchering shed – are expertly realised, and by the book’s end I could almost taste the dollops of sauce that Pat doles out to disguise the rancid flavour of Con’s godawful pies.
Indeed, this obsession with food, its preparation and consumption seems to permeate the novel, with one passage explaining the butchery of an animal as horrific as it is fascinating. This fixation serves to emphasise the simple, savage nature of the lives led by people in Cann River, a community cut off from modern society and its conveniences. I was left wondering whether replacing Instagram and store-bought ready meals with CB radio and home-cooked deer offcuts for a while might be a helpful reminder that humans aren’t as far removed from nature as we might think.
In summary, I would recommend this book very highly, and would describe its setting as one of the most well-realised sinister small towns I have had the pleasure of visiting for a very long time.
The Legacy Of Old Gran Parks is available in paperback or for your eReader device.
That’s all for this week! I hope you enjoyed this review, and I’ll be back next Monday with some more ramblings. In the meantime, stay safe and don’t eat any pies unless you’re sure you can trust the chef…