In the prologue of Mark Brandi’s award-winning debut novel, Wimmera, something unusual is discovered by two young boys in a fast-flowing river. It’s a green wheelie bin with the lid bolted on, “like someone wanted it closed up really tight … like they didn’t want what was in there to ever come out”.
Wimmera jumps around in time and this set piece is only tangentially related to the story, but it’s emblematic of Brandi’s style and an example of the chilling nature of this heart-stopping coming-of-age crime novel. In the story proper, Ben and Fab are 11-year-old best friends in 1989 in Stawell. In different hands, this might be an idyllic boyhood of backyard cricket and catching yabbies, but that’s not Brandi’s style. Ben and Fab look out for each other, and just as well, because they each have problems beyond the norm: a particularly vicious school bully; Ben’s disconnected family; Fab’s frightening, violent father; and the unexplained suicide of a girl from school. A palpable sense of dread builds steadily and when a stranger moves in to the house vacated by the dead girl’s family, things get immeasurably worse.
Few adults remember both the casual cruelty and the powerlessness of children, and Brandi does a remarkable job with the preoccupations and the texture of the lives of these boys on the cusp of puberty. About halfway through, though, the story jumps forward in time almost 20 years, and here Brandi shows us the logical extension of these childhood experiences. He makes the adult lives and decisions rational in a way that goes beyond the usual psychology of characters in even the best fiction. In Wimmera, as well as in real life, the violations of childhood radiate outward like ripples in a pond, damaging both the victims and the people who love them.
Towards the end, everything is revealed in a court case and Brandi includes swaths of quotes from the judge as he passes sentence. It’s this monologue that reveals the true depth of Brandi’s understanding of the nature of victimhood. Everything the judge says about the nature of the crime is absolutely true, yet reveals only a shallow understanding of human nature. Brandi has let readers see into the heart of his characters. In this instance, we know better than the judge.
Very little fiction is as emotionally true as this. Wimmera is a dark and disturbing story from a substantial new talent. LS
Hachette, 272pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 15, 2017 as "Mark Brandi, Wimmera". Subscribe here.