Hinterland is one of those big Australian bush novels in which a group of people – some of them sick, some of them rich and vicious, some of them vassals of the rich or put-upon kids – all collide in a big quasi-political story of grand themes and ideals.
A young doctor gets himself in a knot over a beautiful woman. Another woman, who has endured the vanities of a novelist husband, is appalled – and so is he, a bit – when he finds himself in bed, in Venice, with a guy, and stays there for longer than mishap might pardon.
Someone is planning a super dam to which others object. Sinister rich people command media-savvy parasites but also corruptible literary intellectuals. Sensitive good women wither from cancer and stare out at ruin with refinement and maybe wisdom.
It’s all very doughtily realistic in the laid-on-thick naturalistic mode and it’s brimful of ideas that rain down on the heads of impassioned, not very humorous characters as coconuts might fall on heads. When the super rich see no function for the state except to defend their interests coercively, then it stands to reason that they will invest in security services and privatised prisons, and the whole mechanism by which, as Hobbes argued in Leviathan, violence becomes the monopoly of the state. And these guys are like Louis XIV: l’etat c’est moi, with a black-hearted vengeance.
And why wouldn’t they have Timbertop-style self-reliance camps for boys in the bush with no better purpose than to single out the worst bullies in a British Bulldog world, and set them to pummelling? And why not make the mix much darker by having a fundamentalist Christian element in the schadenfreude-filled concoction?
Hinterland is not really a thriller though it has action with an element of intrigue. The difficulty is that it is not within cooee of the upper reaches of the populaire in the manner of The Broken Shore. It has nothing like the same command of pace nor the same fundamental aesthetic seriousness.
Sometimes there are neat generalisations – how a Christian Brothers background prepares you to withstand life but not to live it, though perhaps memory is improving that one. And there are gestures towards a Dostoyevskian canvas but the attempts are disappointing even when they lead us on. Still, if you were on a plane, Hinterland might allow your own private Odeon to imagine this was pretty powerful stuff. QSS
UQP, 352pp, $29.95
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 1, 2017 as "Steven Lang, Hinterland". Subscribe here.