An Afterlife for Rosemary Lamb by Louise Wolhuter

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An Afterlife for Rosemary Lamb by Louise Wolhuter front cover

Small towns, with their insular attitudes and tight-lipped inhabitants, are a rich hunting ground for crime fiction authors – think City Under One Roof by Iris Yamashita, Weirdo by Cathi Unsworth or any Miss Marple mystery. You know the drill… stranger arrives in town, crime committed, no one saw anything, etc.

There’s that sense of close-knit community claustrophobia about An Afterlife for Rosemary Lamb, but debut author Louise Wolhuter has plenty of surprises in store for anyone who is expecting a run of the mill read. Yes, Rosemary and Eddie Lamb have just arrived in Magpie Beach, an isolated community on the edge of Winifred, a little town in the middle part of Queensland’s coast – but both of them were brought up in the area, so they are not exactly strangers in a strange town.

Rosemary and Eddie build a home on a sparse plot of land, their only neighbours a strange and solitary woman nicknamed Mad Meg by the locals, and The Englishwoman, who is even more solitary than Meg. Neither are conversationalists, so there’s no social life to speak of, which suits Rosemary fine. She has her weekly visit to the cinema in Winifred to keep her going, after all.

It’s that trip to the flicks that gradually brings the three women together, with first Meg and then eventually The Englishwoman – Lily is her name – tagging along, the latter leaving her husband Norman, who has dementia, sitting happily watching Eddie at work creating beautifully crafted rocking horses in his shed.

But where’s the crime in all this, I hear you ask? The growing friendship between the three woman takes centre stage and is beautifully rendered by Wolhuter – but lurking in the background is the disappearance of a young local girl, Jessie Else. Rumours abound, but with no sign of the child the people of Winifred are spooked and have started locking their doors at night.

Jessie’s battered body is eventually found by Meg, buried in the undergrowth not far from where the women live. Suddenly, their quiet little enclave is the centre of media attention and it rankles. The murder is destined to affect all three of them, albeit in very different ways, and it proves a turning point in their lives.

One of the great things about this book is that it strays far, far away from the well-beaten path of your typical crime novel, which is a big plus. The narrative skips around between the viewpoints of Rosemary, Meg and Lily – all of whom are so lovingly created by the author that you’d love to tag along on one of their jaunts into town and beyond. But if something appears too good to be true, it usually is – right?

An Afterlife for Rosemary Lamb is a fine debut and a book to savour. It is packed with delightful turns of phrase, well drawn settings and interesting characters – but the narrative stands tall on the shoulders of the central protagonists, a trio of fully fleshed-out, flawed, damaged, strong and secretive women. Each is complex and compelling; and every single one of them has the power to surprise and shock in unforeseen moments that will stop you dead and leave you gasping.

Louise Wolhuter has a cleverly deceptive writing style which lets the story unfold gently, until you realise the pages are still turning and you should have been in bed hours ago. It is immersive and addictive, and a real pleasure to read. Make a note of the name, because this author is definitely one to watch.

For more Australian crime fiction and family secrets, see Exiles by Jane Harper.

Ultimo Press

CFL Rating: 5 Stars

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