Review: THE PRECIPICE by Virginia Duigan

I was very close to reviewing this at my other blog rather than this one which is devoted strictly to Australian crime fiction. Certainly the book is Australian but to me only people who rarely dip their toes into the genre would consider this book an example of it. However it is being marketed as a suspense/thriller novel and further as a rare example of the genre to reach the longlist of the country’s most prestigious literary award. And regardless of the label you give it, the book is a fantastic read, my favourite of the year so far.

It is tells the tale of Thea Farmer an eighty-ish, single woman who lives in the Blue Mountains (a couple of hours west of Sydney). A retired school principal she designed a dream home and is just about to relax into her lovingly crafted sanctuary when the global financial crisis hits. With her retirement fund reduced to a pittance she has to sell the house and move to ‘the dump’, a nearby Federation era cottage. From there she watches the invaders, her new neighbours Frank, Ellice and 12 year old Kim, and keeps the journal her creative writing tutor recommends. The story then unfolds over the space of a few weeks and we learn something of Thea’s past, in particular the disgrace which forced her early departure from her career, as well as watch her grow to know her new neighbours, warts and all.

It happens less these days than it did when I was a teenager but, occasionally, I still fall in love with fictional characters. The kind of love where you only notice the good things about a person or if you do notice the bad things your brain tricks you into believing they’re good things and you’re happy, willing even, to be tricked. I fell head over heels in such a way for Thea Farmer. She is reclusive, opinionated, proud, distant and is disenchanted with her fellow humans as a species. She is also independent, a loyal friend and a woman of action. As the story opens she is bitterly disappointed, bereft almost, at the loss of her dream and all it represented. And yet she gets on with the graft of living. No breakdowns or wallowing in self pity for her. Thea is far from a perfect human being but she is a marvellous character and I love her to bits.

THE PRECIPICE’s first person narrative, told largely in the present tense, suits the story remarkably well (and somewhat surprisingly for me as these are among my least favourite writing techniques) and Duigan proves herself an evocative writer; able to capture the essence of a moment, a feeling, a natural object with deceptive ease. Through Thea’s eyes there is commentary and observation on our collective impact on the the environment, modern education, ageing and so on but it is all said with a light touch and an underlying sense of humour. Albeit dark humour most of the time. At one point Thea describes being elderly – at least from the point of view of the young – as the tundra of the irrelevant and I found the book full of such turns of phrase; the kind I like to savour, re-read and store away for future use.

The story is in some ways quite simple and straightforward but there is real suspense in the revelation of each small detail of Thea’s past as well as the present happenings. It is done in such a way as to provide a comprehensible motivation for Thea’s behaviour and actions. Which, as it turns out, is entirely necessary. Along the way we meet an awkward but likeable teenager in Kim whom Thea befriends (or is befriended by) and a cast of engaging minor players who provide humour, contrast and diversion. Even, or should I say of course, the natural beauty of the Blue Mountains is a prominent feature of the book, incorporated by the walks Thea takes (at first with her faithful four-legged companion Teddy and then with others). The eponymous Precipice is, fittingly, spectacularly described as are the other special, private places that Thea visits to ease her troubled soul.

I suppose in the end it matters little what gene label is placed on the book except that most of the negative comments I’ve seen about it make some reference to the fact the mystery element is not terribly mysterious. And I would broadly agree with that because, to me, the book is not about who did what to whom. Instead it is a book about a remarkable woman past a certain age who, because of her particular life experiences, reacts to a situation she sees unfolding in a most individual way. And because I am in love with her I found her easy to forgive.

THE PRECIPICE has been reviewed at ANZ Lit LoversAust Crime Fiction and Radio National 

This is my seventh book read and reviewed for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2012 

My rating: 5/5 stars (rating scale is explained here)
Author website:
Publisher: Random House [2011]
ISBN: 9781741667165
Length: 303 pages
Format: eBook 9ePub)
Source: I bought it
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