Best-selling rural fiction author Fleur McDonald takes us to the South Australian outback with her latest novel Voices in the Dark. A family drama at heart, the book is an authentic exploration of grief, family estrangement, and life on the land.
Upon receiving the news that the grandmother who raised her is dying, Sassi Stapleton returns to her rural hometown of Barker. Yet mere hours from arriving, she hits a kangaroo and totals her car. By the time she makes it home, her grandmother is already gone.
Unbeknownst to Sassi, her estranged mother has also returned to Barker, bringing with her years of unresolved tension and family secrets. With the family all under the one roof again, these strains are only amplified as the search for a full-time carer for Sassi’s ailing grandpa begins.
Voices in the Dark paints a vivid picture of rural life without shying away from its challenges – isolation, stretched resources, farm succession and the harsh environment. The small-town strain is immediately felt when we meet the local police team (fans of McDonald’s previous novels will enjoy the return of detective Dave Burrows) who double as fire and ambulance services for the region.
Barker’s prevailing community spirit is the backbone of the story. Voices in the Dark is told through multiple perspectives, providing a rounded sensibility of life out here. Well-crafted characters, including novice police officer Mia and everyone’s adopted mum Kim, feel like real people you would run into at the pub. Each have their own complexities and struggles which would have been interesting to dive deeper into.
This multi-perspective approach helps when the book touches on heavy social issues, including racism, sexual assault and elder abuse. While these themes are not explored in great depth, McDonald writes with empathy and nuance as she invites readers to understand each character’s motives and see their flaws.
The book is a slow burn that spends a lot of time deep in the minutia of daily life, which is at times distracting from the central plot. There isn’t a real sense of suspense until the last fifty pages where an investigation into mysterious bruising on Sassi’s grandpa ramps up, and long-held secrets of the Stapleton family begin to unfold. The ending feels somewhat rushed with the fallout of the final events conveniently dealt with.
While it did leave me hungry for a little more, it’s easy to get absorbed in the world of Barker and the relatable stories of its residents. If you’re a fan of rural fiction looking for a gentle read to get stuck into, this one’s for you!