A troubled young woman blows in from the big city, only to be found dead at the bottom of a cliff in the windswept, isolated place she hoped would heal her. A thread of secrets and lies drifts among the insular locals as a grieving mother looks for answers.
This is clichéd territory: in some ways it sounds like every crime story ever told. But The Newcomer is much more. Melbourne writer Laura Elizabeth Woollett looks again at the trope of the female victim; rather than whodunit – although this still plays a huge part – the novel asks “why?” Why do some women cover up for some men? What is the fuller picture of a female victim of assault, rape or murder? Why are some men violent?
Woollett’s first novel, The Beautiful Revolutionary, released three years ago, was a fictional examination of the women around cult leader Jim Jones in California and Guyana in the 1970s, focusing on his lover Carolyn Layton. It was heavily inspired by historical fact – Woollett went through the Jonestown documents with archivists and with Layton’s sister and spent time in the northern California region where the cult grew.
This time she’s inspired by the real-life 2002 murder of Janelle Patton on Norfolk Island. Patton was a 29-year-old from Sydney and described in a coronial inquest as having “frank views” and an “active love life”. Woollett’s character Paulina Novak is similarly described and, like Janelle Patton, was escaping dysfunction and abuse in Sydney for a quieter and more stable life. But trauma follows the traumatised, even across oceans.
Woollett has again researched the book deeply, visiting the remote island several times. “Fairfolk” is rendered as a strange, cult-like place of stunning natural beauty where endemic, colonial misogyny rules and the women are – mostly – slaves to its damaging cycles. Certain people seem to make the rules and the rules get darker, almost supernaturally so, as the novel progresses.
Her depiction of Paulina is as complex as it needs to be. No “victim” is a facsimile. No story like this, whether true or not, is simple or merely two-sided. Paulina is difficult, moody and reckless much of the time. She seeks solace in the things – drink, drugs and brutal sex – that hurt her. But as Woollett’s clever storytelling and research shows, none of this should lead to a killing in the wilderness.
Scribe Publications, 368pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 3, 2021 as "The Newcomer, Laura Elizabeth Woollett ".
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