Some time in a not-too-distant future, with an increasingly inhospitable climate, a faceless authoritarian Australian government – unable to support a sparse population – is forcing people into overcrowded “inclusion zones”. The outside world is racked by crisis after crisis. Whole countries are bought and sold, entire populations cast into horrific refugee camps that engulf continents, food supply is shaky – everything is shaky. It is a callous and cruel society, and it feels terribly familiar.
This disintegrating world is the setting for Sally Abbott’s excellent debut novel Closing Down, which won Hachette’s inaugural Richell Prize in 2015. In it, we follow Clare and Robbie, two people living very different lives but both tied to the regional Australian town of Myamba: “Last Year’s Fastest Growing Inclusion Zone Town!” It is where Robbie, who now travels the world as a journalist writing stories governments don’t want written, grew up. He returns occasionally to visit his grandmother who remains firmly ensconced in the family’s ancestral home, protected by wealth, property and some less earthly forms of power.
Myamba is also where Clare has landed and now leads a quietly despondent life, scraping by on the edges of things, taking long night-time walks around the town where she is witness to strange phenomena: rains of bleached bones and glimpses of unknown figures walking resolutely north, out into the forbidden expanses.
Closing Down is a refreshingly ambitious work. Abbott experiments with a surreal style and tone. There are ghost narrators, old women who can bestow gifts or curses, sinister children’s drawings and dreams that are anything but imaginary. It could be needlessly wacky, but Abbott makes these magical realist elements seem a logical part of a world without any comfortable certainties. There’s no neat conclusion, and the many dangling threads are a little frustrating, yet it’s never less than gripping. The characters and their strange world are so powerfully drawn that the book’s oppressive mood lingers with the reader long after they’ve looked up from the page.
Closing Down is a book of deep sorrow, capturing the sense of despair that can easily overcome anyone who thinks and cares about the state of the world, but it is not a work that ever gives in to this hopelessness. It is a wonderful thing to find such a compassionate and clear-eyed new literary voice. DV
Hachette, 288pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 13, 2017 as "Sally Abbott, Closing Down". Subscribe here.