For every girl child, there seemed to lurk a dead-eyed man, hair receding prematurely, with a car and the offer of a lift and a plan and a knife and a shovel. Did we create the man by imagining him or was he idling there in his car regardless?
None of us can escape who we are when others aren’t looking; we can’t guess what we’re capable of until it’s too late.
Durton, New South Wales, 2001, the hottest November ever. Twelve-year-old Esther Bianchi has gone missing somewhere between school and home. Authorities are alerted, and a search is on. Her bff, Ronnie, believes that Esther has not met a dark end, and is determined to find her.
Hayley Scrivenor – image from Writer Interviews blogspot
Durton is not exactly a garden spot, although a suggestive apple does put in an appearance. It is a secondary town, to a secondary city, a drive west from Sydney measured in double-digit hours. While there may be some appealing qualities to the place, what comes across about Durton is that it is the back end of nowhere, a physical manifestation of isolation, and thus a fitting image for the isolation experienced by its residents, albeit not quite actual outback. It is a place where there are some who are, wrongfully, ashamed of who they are, and there are some others who should be. The main exports of Durton appear to be fear, pain, abuse, and despair. The local kids call it Dirt Town, which is the title of the book in Australia. The name fits. Not sure why it was retitled Dirt Creek for its North American release.
The action begins on Tuesday, December 4, 2001, with the discovery of a body. Then it goes back to Friday, November 30, tracking the events that led up to that discovery, and continues for a few days beyond. Over the course of these days, we follow Ronnie Thompson and Lewis Kennard, Esther’s mates, Constance Bianchi, Esther’s mother, and Detective Sergeant Sarah Michaels, the detective assigned the case, as they try to figure out where Esther is, and what happened to her, if anything. Ronnie is a first-person narrator, so we get a good close look at her. The Lewis, Constance, and Sarah chapters are in third person, but we still get a pretty good sense of what is going on inside them. The unusual element here is the presence of a first-person Greek chorus, speaking in the voices of children, and offering an omniscient view of the goings on.
I started a PhD in creative writing in 2016. It can be dangerous to ask me about collective narration because my research project looked at novels that had Greek chorus-like narration, and I can go on a bit. But I do have a clear sense of where Dirt Town the novel started. I sat down to write a short story from the point of view of the children of a small town, kind of like the one where I had grown up. What I wrote was largely just these kids coming home from school, but there was an energy in it that made me think it could be a novel. That writing is still in the book, pretty much as it was written. It occurred to me that if I was in these kids’ heads, then I needed something for them all to be looking at, thinking about: an experience that was as big as the town. One of the next flashes I had was that a girl had died, and the story grew from there. – from the Books and Publishing interview
Durton is a close-knit community in a way. Shelly McFarlane, for example, is best friends with Constance Bianchi, Esther’s mother. Shelly’s husband, Peter, is brother to Ronnie Thompson’s mother. There are more, but the connections in Durston occupy a place higher than purely communal, but less than purely familial. And yet, there are many ways to be, or to feel, alone. Constance is English-born, but married a local, and feels very out of place, as the cowboy-ish appeal of her handsome husband has faded under the weight of experience. Lewis has a secret that makes him feel very alone and vulnerable. Sarah must contend with her recent, nasty, breakup with her partner. There are abused people here, who are afraid to tell anyone, lest they suffer even more, given how ineffective or feckless law enforcement has been about such things. This includes a long-ago rape that was never brought to justice. As a part of this, people wonder if they have somehow brought their misery down on themselves, which, of course, only adds to their feelings of isolation. What makes them different also makes them feel alone.
The story moves forward in a moistly straight line, after the initial jump back. There is a bit of history on occasion, for backstory, and there is overlap as different POVs occur simultaneously, reporting events Rashomon-style.
The mystery unravels at a comfortable pace, with clues being presented, conversations being had, and determinations being made about whether this or that connects to the missing girl. There is other criminality going on in Durton that may or may not be related, and there is a pair of missing twins not too far away, whose fate may or may not have anything to do with Esther’s.
The characters are sympathetic and appealing, which makes us eager to keep flipping pages to see if they are ok, in addition to wanting to find out what actually happened. There are the usual number of red herrings flopping about in the bucket. The fun of the clues is trying to figure out which are germane to Esther’s disappearance and which are intended to throw us off the scent. There is also a fair bit about life in Australia, this part of it, anyway. The most interesting element of the novel for me was the Greek chorus. It took a while to figure out who comprised it. That puzzle was fun, too. And the chorus offers a tool for exposition, which worked pretty well.
Overall, I found this an enjoyable, well, considering the subject matter, engaging read, with interesting characters and a mystery that Scrivenor draws you in to trying to solve. Dirt Creek is an excellent Summer entertainment, good, clean reading pleasure.
We are not sure if it was our childhood or just childhood in general that has made us the way we are.
Review posted – September 2, 2022
Publication date – August 2, 2022 (USA)
I received an eARE of Dirt Creek from Flatiron Books in return for a fair review. Thanks, folks, and thanks to NetGalley for facilitating.
This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads
Links to the author’s personal and Instagram pages
Profile – from Booktopia
Hayley Scrivenor is a former Director of Wollongong Writers Festival. Originally from a small country town, Hayley now lives and writes on Dharawal country and has a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Wollongong on the south coast of New South Wales. Dirt Town (our Book of the Month for June!) is her first novel. An earlier version of the book was shortlisted for the Penguin Literary Prize and won the Kill Your Darlings Unpublished Manuscript Award.
—–Booktopia – Ten Terrifying Questions with Hayley Scrivenor
—–Books + Publishing – Hayley Scrivenor on ‘Dirt Town’
—–The Big Thrill – Much More Than a Familiar Whodunnit by Charles Salzberg
—–Crimereads – COLLECTIVE NARRATORS: THE BEST USES OF THE FIRST-PERSON PLURAL IN LITERATURE
—–Mystery Tribune – A Conversation With Australian Mystery Writer Hayley Scrivenor
Item of interest – author
—–Kill Your Darlings – Show Your Working: Hayley Scrivenor
I wondered why Scrivenor had set her story in 2001 and if there were any particular significances to her characters’ names, so I asked, on her site. She graciously replied.
The simple answer to the setting question is that the character of Ronnie is twelve in 2001, and so was I – so it helped me keep my timeline straight!
For the names query, she referred me to an interview in which some of the name considerations are addressed. Here is her response from there:
I spent quite a bit of time thinking about the names of characters. Some have been the same almost since the start: Veronica, the missing girl’s best friend, goes by ‘Ronnie’, and that always felt absolutely right for her character. The character of Lewis, a young boy who sees Esther after she’s supposed to have gone missing, gets called ‘Louise’ by his classmates, I had to reverse-engineer a name that kids could play with in that way. Sometimes, names can become a little in-joke with yourself, too. There is a character named ‘Constance’, who is the mother of the missing girl. I called her Constance because she changes her mind a lot, over the course of the story.
—–Author Interviews – Hayley Scrivenor by Marshal Zeringue