Outback novels, in truth, have been few and far between on the bookshelves of my life, let alone one of ‘love, intrigue and redemption’, so I was very keen to start this debut tale by Fleur McDonald, an Aussie mum and farm veteran living on the land in Western Australia.
Being a die-hard urbanista, I can’t in the least bit relate to life on the farm anywhere, let alone in Australia’s harsh red outback, but McDonald’s account of rural life soon drew me into her rustic world – a little slowly at first, but eventually I was well and truly squared in a world of rusting fences, cattle, sheep and the lonely echo of remote living. McDonald is a woman who is writing about what she knows.
Lead character Gemma Sinclair, an attractive honey-blonde, finds herself a widow after a suspicious accident involving the light aircraft of her husband, Adam. Tearing to the aircraft ruins in horror, Gemma finds Adam barely alive, and upon his dying breath, her husband delivers to his wife an ominous warning – “they might come after you when I’m gone. Sell the station…”
Confused and devastated, Gemma is soon comforted by her best friend – the quick-witted, high-spirited Jess, and a newcomer to the area – handsome love interest, Ben. But the death of Adam is only the beginning of Gemma’s problems. With money issues and her father hospitalised after a heart attack, Gemma becomes aware of a stock sealing racket – with many a sharply pointed finger aimed at her husband Adam, and at Gemma herself. As stolen stock begins appearing on her property, it soon becomes clear Gemma’s livelihood and very reputation are in serious jeopardy.
With the aid of the very clever Jess, her loyal farmhands, some friendly cops and her brother Patrick, Gemma embarks on a journey to clear her name – and the name of her dead husband – with an outcome that is not so much intriguing as it is lightly surprising and warmly satisfying.
Red Dust will never be known for its elegant prose. McDonald’s writing voice is simplistic, using basic, down-to-earth vernacular, sometimes ineffectively so. This straight-talking style appears to have come directly from a real farmer of the land – and this is perhaps why the novel does, nonetheless, work so well in the end. Likewise, the lack of descriptive wordage does not take away from the well-fleshed plot and the scenery overall; nor does it in the least bit compromise her characters.
With her first novel, McDonald has carefully laid out the characters in this story to fit snugly together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Each character is essential and handy to the storyline, and McDonald obviously considered the plot and the vital role of each character carefully. Although the novel is not lengthy – which can compromise the best character development – the author nonetheless manages to create a set of very likable, believable and also despicable characters, that keep the reader solidly engaged.
Similarly, McDonald fits a lot into this very straight-forward yarn – giving the reader mini twists and suspense that, whilst admittedly short-lived, are very enjoyable. Despite a lack of loquacious sophistication, there are moments of true and very effective scene placement. The sheep-shearing scene, for example, is undoubtably the most powerful and evocative in this likeable novel… the equivalent of a film’s seamless, dialogue-free vignette, underpinned by a breathtaking musical score – so emotive and stunning to watch.
Touted as a romance, McDonald disappointingly makes her Red Dust characters very ‘good looking’ (why oh why do lead characters always have to be ‘good looking’?). She does inject a nice slip of romance into this tale, but thankfully does it without resorting to schmaltz or stereotype. Relationships are real, which, of course, makes them all the more passionate. Nonetheless, the book is certainly no romantic saga, nor is it heart-wrenching – there simply aren’t enough protagonists or carefully placed conflict between Ben and Gemma, nor her dead husband, to make such a claim.
Another issue I had with the book is, once again, the cover. Like so many covers of modern day fiction, the artwork belies the content. Gemma, a pretty, ‘honey blonde’ Australian, is portrayed on this book cover by a brunette, European supermodel – a fault which seems to echo the sensationalised front covers of modern day tabloids.
To me, a book cover gives readers a teensy visual that helps them connect more quickly with the characters and setting within. Had Gemma appeared on the cover as a strong, golden-blonde woman in moleskins and an akubra, I’m sure my connection to her would have settled much sooner. The glorious Gemma of this book is not the woman on the front cover, that’s for sure.
I did enjoy Red Dust, though I feel short changed that it could have been meatier. I got the distinct impression McDonald held herself back – particularly in relation to roughing up the storyline – and thus shifting it from ‘women’s magazine fiction’ to a true Aussie drama. Although I appreciate her unwillingness to write anything vulgar or offensive, the book felt a little too safe at times, when a swear word (who says “bulldust” any more?) or coarse descriptive would have leant a little more edge to the narrative, rather than the occasional prim and proper feel that just felt out of place. A harder line would have better suited the guts of this raw outback novel and the emotion tied in with the plot.
Perhaps this oversight was in the editing, perhaps it was McDonald’s inexperience or unwillingness to slip away from mainstream readership. Whatever the case, I hope to see something more jagged and primal in her next novel – Blue Skies. Let’s just hope there’ll be some big, black storm clouds on its horizon.
Tania McCartney is an author, editor, bloggist and regular contributor to Australian Women Online. For more information about Tania and her books visit her website www.taniamccartney.com