He may have grown up on a wheat and wool farm, but Garry Disher is far from sentimental when it comes to life on the land. His latest novel is about a girl bought for a handful of coins by a villainous scrap man and pressed into a life of drudgery and mistreatment on an isolated property in back country Victoria.
The year is 1909 and six-year-old Lily is making toasting irons and oven mitts for her reprobate master to sell door to door. The sly brute also trains her in housebreaking, pickpocketing and various other swindles. The years pass, with beatings and rapes and every variety of neglect. Lily is a doughty soul, however, and although her early attempt to escape is thwarted, her determination to get away from the man never wanes.
So this is no bush idyll or sheep station romance. At times, particularly when Lily and the man are on the road hawking their shoddy wares, it reads like a bleak revisioning of The Shiralee, D’Arcy Niland’s Depression-era yarn about a gruff swagman and his plucky young daughter. Here it is the girl who does all the work, making the money that the useless scrap man then blows on booze and brothels. He is, of course, a caricatured devil incarnate.
But what sort of family sells a child, let alone so cheaply and to such an obvious cove? And how is it that this lazy, dim-witted rag-and-bone man can practise his abuses for so long? Here Disher taps into familiar fears about the lack of community supervision in rural Australia, and the awful things that people do when they are desperate and no one is watching.
Disher is best known as a crime writer and this book features some terrific set pieces revealing a seedier side of life beyond the black stump, including a parody of Australian Gothic in which the scrap man and a pair of evil swaggies play out a marathon game of poker in an abandoned bluestone mill, with Lily as the man’s stake.
At a descriptive level, as an evocation of a post-Federation world of blowflies, fencing wire and rock buns, Her is almost flawless. And yet, despite the polished realism, this dour and dusty tale in which nothing ever changes can seem to drag its heels. Disher challenges us to think again about the place of women in our legends of bush life, but here he is too determinedly lugubrious to really touch the heart – or trouble the conscience. JR
Hachette, 224pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 5, 2017 as "Garry Disher, Her". Subscribe here.