Books

S. J. Finn
Down to the River

The central concern of S. J. Finn’s new novel is the devastating effects of paedophilia. Told from the point of view of a teenager and two local journalists covering the story, it follows the response among the residents of a town in regional Australia to the discovery of a convicted paedophile in their midst. Not without sensitivity, it explores questions around the treatment of paedophiles who have served their sentences, the demands of residents to be alerted to their presence, and the nature of paedophilia itself. 

Ultimately, however, the limitations of Down to the River overshadow the subtle treatment of the subject Finn is aiming for with this story. In her eagerness to present the ordinary, small-town world of ordinary, small-town people, she presents a series of characters for which it is hard to muster much enthusiasm. It is a problem of characterisation but also one of language:

If it was up to him a thing like paedophilia would be systematically bred out of humans. But with the prevalence being as high as it is…something very evil has wormed its way into the population, and he can’t imagine how it is going to be stamped out – especially given the internet with its proliferation of child pornography. It has become the ultimate breeding ground. 

These are the private thoughts of newspaper editor Roy. They are the convincingly dull notions of a dull man, but these thoughts are expressed in such a stilted, over-explained, passive-voiced way that even dull Roy feels hard done by here. The central figure, Joni, doesn’t fare much better. Apparently she has charm – she has two suitors in the novel – but this charm isn’t evident on the page. 

There are other problems. Hearts pound in this book. They thrash, leap, flutter and thrash again. Affect is dispensed with lazily in nearly every instance. People are often “at a loss” or “flabbergasted”. Not only are these clichés, but this sort of thing shouldn’t need to be stated. It leaves no room for the reader’s imagination.

The New Yorker’s James Wood argues that the novel must strive to “connect the inner life of our culture with the inner life of the human and to describe both vividly”. Unfortunately, in Down to the River Finn strives to do something like this, but by not delving deeply enough into the inner life of either the culture or the human, the vividness of her description is weakened.  SH

Sleepers, 271pp, $24.95

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 7, 2015 as "S. J. Finn, Down to the River". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: SH