Dark Fires Shall Burn
If you had lived in Sydney’s Newtown in 1946, just beyond the shattering of an old cultural order and right amid the formation of the postwar social world, would you have been aware you lived in interesting times? In Anna Westbrook’s debut novel, the characters do and don’t. They cartwheel through an area of Sydney that feels more like a Dickensian slum than anything you’d find in an Australian city today. Dark Fires Shall Burn is a richly textured, entertaining caper, a convincing if sometimes too-technicolour evocation of a past time, whose purpose seems less to show how near we are to history than how quickly even recent times can fade to a scrawl.
The gristle of this novel is in the gaps, the seams: between girls who can’t understand why boys play war games anymore; between modern Australia and one where teachers try to “expunge” local accents; and certainly between being a child and being a grown-up. The latter is partly illustrated by Nancy and Frances, best friends in school, but more so by Templeton, a 16-year-old who acts much younger than his age but turns like clockwork into a true adult by the novel’s end. Westbrook builds atmosphere by evoking the humus of childhood, which is alive with smells: her Newtown is filled with “Pond’s, tobacco, some sort of sweet liquor”. History, too, is pervasive: in the same sentence, “overlaying everything, that rich woody jasmine stink of the Tabu that soldiers brought back from Europe”.
Plot points turn on actions not always noticed by adults, as well as what children might do when they slip out of the house at night – whether that house is a good home with an imperfect mother, or a whorehouse full of stagey characters of ill repute. Parts of the book are built around the real life unsolved murder of an 11-year-old schoolgirl named Joan Ginn, and one character’s grief for her analogue is quite movingly drawn, with a queasy mix of selfishness, vengeance fantasies and blame.
The details of Westbrook’s 1946 are endlessly interesting, a time when children play hopscotch and chant, “Step on a crack, break Hitler’s back.” And always there’s that winking aperture between ages and different times: a child might see a private smile as her mother sleeps, but its cause and substance must remain maddeningly out of reach. CR
Scribe, 288pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 14, 2016 as "Anna Westbrook, Dark Fires Shall Burn". Subscribe here.