Traced opens in 2020. The narrator, Jane, is a middle-aged contact tracer at a New South Wales Health call centre in Sydney’s western outskirts. The novel transports us back to the time when Covid-19 was new and all talk was of clusters and close contacts. It’s interesting how historical a story that takes place just three years ago can feel.
Catherine Jinks joins a growing list of writers who set fiction in those fraught early years of the pandemic, including Gary Shteyngart (Our Country Friends), Ali Smith (Summer) and Louise Erdrich (The Sentence). In Traced, the times are integral to the plot. Jinks, an accomplished crime writer, cleverly blends the generalised fears and tropes of that era, including those around mandatory isolation and testing, with a tightly wound narrative of creeping menace.
Jane, like many of her colleagues, used to be in the travel business; they’re used to soothing stressed and irate clients who’ve missed their flights, can’t find almond milk in Peru or worry about allergies to privet hedges at their Airbnb. Contact tracing is next level – a contact tracer is always delivering news that no one wants to hear. The story begins with Jane calling Nicole, a woman who answers the phone in a “hectically cheerful” manner. She becomes feverishly anxious even before Jane reveals why she’s calling and asks her to be quick. Her fiancé, she explains, might call to check in on her and “he’ll hate it if he can’t get through”.
Jane gets to the point, aware, as always, that “No matter how gently I spoke, or how careful I tried to be, I was lobbing a grenade into her life”. Nicole responds with panic to the news she needs a PCR test and the questions about who she’s been in contact with. At first, she denies that she’s seen anyone besides her fiancé at all – they live on a farm, she doesn’t have a car, she hasn’t been out for weeks. When Jane reveals the person who named her as a contact, Nicole begins to cry. “He’ll kill me,” she says of her fiancé, and Jane begins to realise she’s not kidding.
There were protocols in place for cases of suspected domestic violence. The contact tracer was to alert the team leader, write a full report, fill in “core fields”. The team leader would then co-ordinate the response, including helping the close contact move into a shelter or safe house. But something else Nicole reveals over the phone makes Jane decide it would be too dangerous to trust this terrified young woman to a potentially slow-moving and sometimes careless bureaucratic process. She takes the case into her own hands.
Jane enlists the help of a few mates, including one who runs a women’s shelter, and Eric, a chain-smoking skip tracer for a debt collection company in Ashfield who is, like her, a bit of a rule-breaker when the rules stop making sense and lives need to be saved. He also knows there is more to Jane’s past than any of her colleagues are aware of and understands immediately how high are the stakes. The chapters alternate between the 2020 present and the 2014-15 past: Nicole’s story and Jane’s own weave ever closer together. Even if Jinks scatters enough clues to allow the reader to solve some of the plot’s chief mysteries, she still crafts a taut, tense thriller of a narrative, expertly cranking up the suspense notch by notch. I admit I was so immersed in the tension that when a sudden noise came from the apartment above while I was reading, I jumped straight off the sofa.
Traced serves up its nailbiting plot with the occasional side of humour. Among the minor characters is the mother of Jane’s daughter’s ex, a cold and entitled little woman with a handshake like a “bouquet of pencils”. She announces she’s booked Jane’s daughter in for an “emergency facial” so that she’ll “present” better. Jane thinks she’s joking, but no one is laughing except her.
Traced shines a spotlight on the serious issues of coercive control and gaslighting. Some of the tension in the plot comes from how acutely the latter can mess with people’s minds. Because Jane’s own, difficult history inclined her to have “zero trust in men”, she had questioned her own intuitive repulsion towards the man her daughter was once in love with, despite feeling “a pang of dread deep inside, like a glint of water at the bottom of a well” when she first met him. Jane’s efforts to convey her growing unease over how the man dominated her daughter and alienated the young woman from friends, colleagues and family only led the daughter to accuse Jane of being overprotective. The man himself, who possessed an unerring instinct for identifying people’s vulnerabilities, played on Jane’s self-doubt with devastating consequences.
Even as the pieces of an increasingly blood-soaked puzzle begin falling into place and it’s clear Nicole is not the only one in mortal danger, Jane is plagued by the thought she might be overreacting. It would be rare to find a male protagonist so tormented by self-doubt but that, perhaps, is part of the point. Sadly, Jane’s decision not to involve the police because she doesn’t trust them to take a “hysterical” middle-aged woman’s concerns seriously is similarly credible. For all the imaginative turns of the plot, Jinks keeps it real.
Text Publishing, 352pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 8, 2023 as "Traced".
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