With her debut novel Goodwood, Holly Throsby has become the latest author to tackle small-town Australian life, combining country fiction’s two great genres: the coming-of-age story and the sinister crime drama. The plot focuses on the mysterious disappearances of two beloved locals, which understandably shakes the town’s sense of itself to the core.
Many readers will know Throsby as a popular musician and songwriter, and in her first novel she displays a lyricist’s affinity for metaphor and sharp visual imagery. Sense of place is important in Goodwood: the distinctive sights and smells of the town and its surrounds, the local history and hangout spots, the shared mythology and complex web of friendships and enmities – all are painstakingly evoked here.
Unfortunately, the evocation ends up feeling rather too painstaking. Moments of pathos are overexplained into banality, and no interaction or piece of dialogue is allowed to pass without the author making certain the reader will comprehend its significance. There is nothing in the least restrained about Goodwood: it is as though every single idea and note the author had has ended up on the page.
There are so many named characters that it’s near impossible to keep track of them all, particularly as most tend towards flimsy caricature. The confusion between the characters and their lack of depth certainly isn’t for want of trying, though. Seemingly no one can be introduced without the reader first being subjected to a series of colourful anecdotes about them and history of the town, almost all of which feel decidedly forced.
A related issue is the sheer weight of superfluous detail. In one section, Throsby spends half a page listing every person who hasn’t seen a certain missing car the town’s policeman is looking for – which, admittedly, gives a feel for the tedium of everyday police work. Every scene is crammed with information, every breed of cow a dairy farmer owns is listed, the make of every character’s car, the brand of beer they drink… it soon becomes exhausting.
When Throsby does occasionally narrow her focus, the novel instantly begins to breathe. The intimate scenes between the teenage protagonist and her single mother ring pleasingly true, as does the lovely but all-too-brief romantic subplot. It is a shame that the pleasures of Goodwood are so hard won, because when they do finally appear, they are sincere and genuine. DV
Allen & Unwin, 384pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 1, 2016 as "Holly Throsby, Goodwood". Subscribe here.