Irish-Australian Gothic

A Book Review by Frances Devlin-Glass

Adrian McKinty: The Island, Hachette, RRP $16.00

I’ve relished the Adrian McKinty crime novels since encountering his Sean Duffy series over 10 years ago. What I enjoyed about them was their (fictionalised) use of historical events, their fidelity to Northern Ireland’s topography and culture, their gritty and often humorous characterisation of the only Catholic cop in a Carrickfergus cop-shop, and their literary allusiveness.

So, an Irish-Australian crime novel, though it’s far from the genres of fiction I normally enjoy, was irresistible. The Island didn’t have quite the appeal of the Sean Duffy series (I was less impressed by the Michael Forsythe Trilogy), but it is one of his legacies of his 10 years writing in Australia (in St Kilda), so it fascinated me to see how McKinty re-invented Australian gothic, an old genre in this country, which is sometimes linked with the crime genre. While it does re-use some time-worn tropes about the terrors of the Australian bush (sharks and a copperhead snake, lack of water, high summer temperatures, cannibalising ants), it tactfully refrains from what could have been a long catalogue of threats, and instead focuses on the horrors that are human – a feral family living off-grid with an eye-for-an-eye philosophy of life. Admittedly, the family (from whose point of view the story is told) that collaborated in covering up a fatal accident were not without fault, adding further grievance to a severe loss.

The main protagonist, Heather, is given a back-story that explains her commitment to two churlish and unaccepting step-children. It involves a loving and war-damaged American father who taught her army-style survival skills high in the Olympic mountains of the northern west coast USA inland of Seattle, and immersion in an American-Indian reservation to which he retreated after his scarifying time in the US Army. That prepares the ground for the children’s slowly developing trust in Heather, and as well, sets the scene for her openness to the lost past of Victorian Indigenous presence in the landscape. 

My only regret as a reader of this novel is that Dutch Island (which we’re told is the home of a rather more civilised family) was not sketched in the same detail as the geography of McKinty’s NI novels. None of the islands in Port Phillip Bay seem to qualify and Churchill Island in Westernport Bay has some of the implied history, but is too far from Melbourne and more developed. I have to be content with its being perhaps an imagined island.

As you’d expect from a globally awarded, experienced crime fiction writer, this novel is a page-turner, and often quite chilling and surprising in the turns it takes. I dare not spoil the pleasure for readers who come after me. I especially enjoyed the Irish-Australian matriarch of the family who reminded me of one such in this city whom McKinty undoubtedly read about during his sojourn in Melbourne. Ma’s power over her lawless brood is not complete, but she rules most of them with a hefty, gnarly, emotion-fuelled blackthorn, and some of them are thick enough to require infusions of maternal bile. This is a revenge ‘tragedy’ which will make a fine film.

Frances Devlin-Glass

Frances was subjected to a Literary education which disdained crime fiction and she is pleased that McKinty challenged her prejudices in his Sean Duffy series.