Before I can finally settle into my writing groove for this year (I know it’s nearly March) there’s one review that’s been on my mind lately. It’s been sitting half-finished, on my computer’s desktop for longer than I care to admit. It’s about time I finished what I started – which I can see becoming a theme for the year.
Darkness on the Edge of Town
Jessie Cole // Published in 2012
Bruce Springsteen’s best songs celebrate the eternal outcast, still hoping to somehow make things right again.
It’s a thematic preoccupation he shares in common with Australian author, Jessie Cole. Her debut novel, Darkness on the Edge of Town, features a Springsteen-inspired title and a small cast of outsiders that would surely make The Boss proud.
Vincent lives out of town in a rundown shack hidden in bushland on the side of a mountain. He’s nearly forty, with a long string of ex-girlfriends and a physically demanding, dead-end job. His spare time is spent at the pub or coaching the local junior footy team.
The one success of Vincent’s life is his kind-hearted, introspective daughter, Gemma. She’s sixteen, and looks after her father as she would a child, making sure he has lunch to take to work and a meal ready for him when he gets home.
Coming home down the winding mountain road late one night, Vincent finds an upturned car, its engine still running, just outside the entrance to his house. He finds the driver, a young woman, crouching in the gravel by the side of the road, precariously close to the steep drop down the mountainside. One arm hangs limp by her side. In the other, she’s holding a badly injured baby.
Vincent helps the woman and her child inside, and does his best to make them comfortable as they wait for the ambulance to make its way up the mountain.
Days later, the woman, Rachel, unexpectedly returns to Vincent’s house. Bruised and weak, alone, her arm in plaster, she says little. When it’s clear that Rachel has nowhere else to go, Vincent reluctantly asks her to stay. Caring for Rachel’s injuries, both physical and psychological, forces an awkward intimacy between the two.
Gemma is initially suspicious of the beautiful, broken woman her father has brought into their house, as well as his reasons for letting her stay. She’s not the only one. It’s not too long before ugly rumours about Vincent and the woman he’s hiding in his house make their way into town.
When a middle-aged man from the city turns up in town, asking questions about Rachel and her baby, Vincent and Gemma begin to understand what Rachel was running from.
Darkness on the Edge of Town is relentless. Right from the opening scene, Cole manages to strike the right level of intensity and maintains that pace throughout. She writes about characters on the edge – not only literally on the edge of town, but also on the edge of adulthood, the edge of poverty, the edge of language. It’s the precariousness of this balance, this strange, liminal space in which this novel takes place that lends it such an incredible sense of tension.
The novel is narrated by both Vincent and Gemma, in simple, unadorned language that lends an air of authenticity to Cole’s characters. Though the story focuses on Vincent and Rachel, Cole takes great care to ensure that Gemma’s story isn’t lost, and it’s in Gemma’s sections that some of Cole’s most insightful observations take shape. Gemma’s simultaneous longing for her first sexual experience and her dread of it is particularly well-expressed:
I felt my cheeks go hot and I took another sip of the Jim Beam, hoping Dave wouldn’t see me blush. Even though I’d never been in this situation before – two boys, two girls and a bottle of Jim Beam and Coke – there was something familiar about it. Something sad and sick-feeling. I liked Dave, and I wanted him to like me, but I felt like walking into Mel’s bedroom would be following a sort of script. Some path that had been laid down years before, maybe forever. Like I was part of an old bad movie, and I didn’t want to be.
In the gaps between Vincent and Gemma’s narratives, we see a third thread emerge; the story of the relationship between father and daughter. While Vincent is a caring father, he fails to see what’s right in front of him:
She’s sixteen, my girl, and she’s only just reached that girly stage. Nail polish and lip gloss. She came home from school the other day all dolled up. It was photo day and her friends had taken her aside and done her makeup. I reckon she expected me to hit the roof, to tell her to ‘get that shit off’, but I just looked and didn’t say nothing. She washed it off anyway, soon as she got home.
Misunderstandings are rife in Darkness on the Edge of Town, as is silence. After her accident, Rachel takes a while to begin speaking again, relieving her trauma in ways that Vincent and Gemma struggle to understand. As she begins to heal, Rachel begins to express herself through art, attaching fallen leaves to the trunks of trees and preserving red autumn leaves in jars.
Other lapses in communication in the novel are more insidious. As Vincent begins to develop feelings for Rachel, he doesn’t ask her how old she is, secretly worrying that she might not be much older than his own daughter.
Vincent makes a difficult hero. At one point in the novel, as he comforts Rachel, he reflects that although he knows nothing lasts forever, he’s “sort of hoping that it could”. Later, when Gemma confronts him about his relationship with Rachel, Vincent can’t put into words the way he feels about her.
Vincent’s protective nature has its moments of tenderness…but it’s also worryingly posessive. When he meets the father of Rachel’s baby, he becomes livid with jealous anger:
Watching him, I began thinking of how easy it would be to crack him over the head from behind. To take him out, one whack to that creased old neck.
Masculine aggression begins as an unspoken, insidious presence in Darkness on the Edge of Town. It’s a lingering threat eventually, perhaps inevitably, makes its way to the foreground – with devastating consequences.
This is a novel with a lot to say. And although her characters often find themselves lost for words, Jessie Cole speaks with perfect clarity and restraint.
Ultimately, Darkness on the Edge of Town is as fierce as it is fearless. It crackles with the same kind of anxious intensity that heralds an electrical storm, gathering energy before it bursts in a memorable final sequence that will leave you trembling.
This is my first review for 2014’s Australian Women Writers Challenge. You can find more about the project here. Or, click here to read the opening passage of Darkness on the Edge of Town over at Jessie Cole’s blog. Once you’ve finished, you should probably head over to Booktopia, where you can buy a copy of your own.
And finally, because I can’t resist, here’s Bruce: