With no time to recover from the recent fire season and the next one looming behind this pandemic, Torched, set in a Yarra Valley town devastated by bushfires, indisputably captures the spirit of the times.
Kimberley Starr evokes Brunton, once home to “Victoria’s best vanilla slice”, land of cellar doors and fusion restaurants, in an authentic re-creation of a small country town with its attendant small-town life, where dyed black hair and piercings draw instant negative attention. Teenage Goth Caleb is the arson suspect, and his mother, primary school principal Phoebe, is intent on clearing his name. Matters are complicated by the fact he won’t talk about where he was at the time of the fire. Caleb is not forthcoming, perhaps even less so than the standard teenager. But Phoebe has her secrets too, which make for fascinating musings on the nature of inherited behaviours. In this riven world, resentment and anger burble up, and Phoebe discovers few loyal friends.
The novel progresses in a slow march to uncover who is responsible, Caleb’s sullen unresponsiveness a constant frustration. Facts gradually infiltrate concerning a car accident he was involved in a year earlier; ramifications are still being felt. Through Phoebe’s interest in Ancient Roman history, Starr contemplates the parallel tale of Nero, who searched for a scapegoat when he was accused of fiddling while Rome burned. Caleb could be a scapegoat or he could be an arsonist. Phoebe’s understanding of Caleb is the partially blind perspective of a parent. He fits the type: a loner, male, in his 20s, CFA volunteer.
The narrative threads can lag and the sense of drama wanes; too long is spent idling repetitively through Phoebe’s past. This is also true when Caleb repeats that he doesn’t deserve to be liked, reiterated more than is necessary. At the same time, plot strands and characters fall by the wayside. Phoebe’s mother, Genevieve – one of Victoria’s first female QCs, highly successful, unfailingly disappointed in her daughter, Botoxed, mainlining short blacks – is a dazzling but underutilised character.
One of the highlights of this literary thriller is the description of the heat of the fire, when Phoebe retreats to the dam and survives under wet blankets. Writer and teacher Starr constructs strong sentences, and Torched is an abidingly thoughtful rumination on human nature, secrets and unforeseeable consequences.
Pantera, 424pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 16, 2020 as "Kimberley Starr, Torched ".
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