Responsibility, redemption, and squandered chances are among the themes in Paul Howarth’s second novel, which will live in your memory long after turning the last page. Just as indelible is the portrait of the Australian Outback in the late 19th century – the dust and drought, the hardness and hardiness of the people who take up residence in such a hostile environment, the friction between the land’s original residents and white settlers.
Billie and Tommy McBride, aged 16 and 14, arrive at their remote home to find their mother and father shot dead, and their younger sister Mary, dying. The Native Police arrive to investigate, headed by a white inspector named Noone. The police claim the crime was committed by an aboriginal group called the Kurrong, and take off in pursuit, taking the two teenagers with them. Eventually, they find the group and slaughter them – men, women, and children alike, upwards of 100 people, except for a few women they keep alive for other purposes. The are boys made complicit in the police depredations and subsequent revisions of events. Beyond the massacre, the remainder of the novel is about how they cope with that guilt and horror.
Noone remains a dominant presence in their lives, even though they rarely see him. He has insisted the boys split up and have nothing to do with each other or he will return and kill them, any family they have, and everyone they care about. They believe him.
A few years go by, and Billie has married successfully to a widow with a sizeable station. Tommy, with his black companion Arthur, has a job on another distant station, where he’s putting up fencing under the thumb of a vindictive overseer. In a confrontation between Tommy knocks the man down. Hitting his head on a rock, the man dies. Tommy and Arthur flee but with the telegraph likely one step ahead of them they need to lie low.
What modest successes either young man achieves are tainted by the anxiety that the annihilation of the Kurrong will come to light, that Noone will decide they are a risk to his position and he and his minions will track them down. In Tommy’s case, there’s the additional worry that the murder he committed will come out. Dread hangs over their lives and the story like a black cloud.
However, a Brisbane lawyer named Henry Wells gets wind of the Kurrong affair and decides to pursue it. You first see him in court, prosecuting a man who, without question, murdered a black person. It takes ten minutes for the jury to set the murderer free. When a reverend who witnessed the Kurrong slaughter seeks Wells out and tells the tale, the lawyer decides to pursue it, even though his witness has slipped into alcoholism and destitution that may make him unreliable.
At last, he forces the authorities to hold an inquest, which they do, somewhere in the Outback where community sentiment is decidedly against the aborigines. Wells is married, but he’s gay, and Noone’s spies have a talent for seeking out such information. Noone delights in exploiting men’s weaknesses and makes Wells a laughingstock in court. Billie is also a witness at the inquest though Tommy cannot be found, and having to confront Noone’s lies about those terrible events all over again is shattering. It’s also a revelation for Billie’s wife.
If you’re familiar with the writing of Cormac McCarthy (No Country for Old Men or Blood Meridian, for example), you may find Howarth’s bracing writing style similar. Reading this book is like having all your veins and arteries cleaned out, cleared of everything easy and soft. While the writing is hard as a diamond, it’s also beautiful and properly paced to magnify the weight of the men’s actions.
A map would have been helpful for anyone who doesn’t know the geography. Author Paul Howarth is a British writer who emigrated to Australia. After becoming a dual citizen he’s moved back to the UK but continues to write about the country. Dust Off the Bones follows his 2018 historical crime fiction debut, Only Killers and Thieves.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars