- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 7, 2002

A CHILD'S BOOK OF TRUE CRIME

By Chloe Hooper

Scribner, $24, 238 pages

Some years ago, a small sedan was to be seen on the streets of Washington, D.C., bearing a rear bumper sticker that read, "Made in Tasmania." Many who saw it laughed excepting one supposes visitors from Hobart or other parts of the old prison island off Australia's south coast. Well, now Chloe Hooper in her debut novel, "A Child's Book of True Crime," has given us a picture of Tasmania closer to the real thing and a fiction of considerable elegance.
The 1983 murder mystery around which the novel's plot revolves happpens at a place called Black Swan Point on the Tasman Peninsula in the southeast corner of the island, east of Hobart. A thriller of sorts, this is nevertheless a complex multitiered fiction rich in local color, erotic intrigue (meaning adultery), psychological insight and beauty in its descriptive prose style.
In play are intergenerational tensions that oppose middle-aged men (the 1960s and '70s social revolution having arrived in Australia 10 years later than elsewhere), their wives, a couple of much younger women, and children, specifically 4th-graders at the Endport Primary school.
Chipping in with what might be reckoned a childlike perspective on the notorious murder are the "bushland gang," a collection of gentle, anthropomorphized animals. The author uses them in an italicized page or two at the head of chapters to set the scene. Thus, in the book's opening paragraphs, the animals gather at a window of the Siddell family's run-down cottage and, peering in at a window, witness the evidence of a deadly, bloody struggle inside:
"Terence Tiger covered Kitty Koala's eyes. He could hardly bear to look himself, yet somehow he managed. It was as if a wild frankly a wild animal had been at work here, the tiger thought. 'Who could have done such a thing?' He stared across the horizon. At the bottom of the cliffs, black swans sang mournfully. The stately birds dipped their long necks in and out of the water, arching, straining: an ocean of question marks."
The device of using the animals may be the writer's big risk in her novel, but it serves to bridge the worlds of childhood and adult shenanigans that compete in the mind of Kate Byrne, the central character. The writing is lovely, of course, with a feeling for the Tasmanian setting being conveyed imaginatively throughout.
Kate is a 22-year-old schoolteacher very much taken with one of her 4th-grade pupils, the precocious Lucien Marne. She also is having an affair with Thomas Marne, Lucien's middle-aged father and a lawyer. He reckons that the purpose of their sexual liaison is to alleviate boredom, and he likes to play a verbal game with Kate in which she is younger than in fact she is, and a "good girl."
Lucien's urbanely sexy mother, Veronica, pale and with "skin that held the light," hovers in the background. She has written and recently published a book on the murder at Black Swan Point and is enjoying publicity on the strength of that. Exactly why Veronica is so fixated on the crime, Kate is not sure as she navigates her own ambiguous relationship with Thomas. She worries about Lucien too, whom she feels is suffering from his mother's preoccupation with the savagely bloody story, as reflected in his strangely symbolic drawings in class.
For whatever reason fear for herself, concern for Lucien, some of each? Kate too becomes obsessed with the never solved murder of Eleanor "Ellie" Siddell. The animals sum the tragedy up concisely:
"Kitty blushed, wringing her paws. Ellie was a nurse at the local veterinary clinic, a fun-loving girl and strikingly pretty. But every local pet, recently vaccinated, had a story to tell about Ellie and the debonair vet. No matter that Graeme Harvey was married with three children half the dogs in town returned from being fixed with some humiliating anecdote involving the couple's lunch-hour exploits.
"A tear rolled down Wally Wombat's fur. 'She was still a lovely girl, a lovely, gentle girl.'"
Kate, at 23, is involved with a much older man but still young enough to relate closely with the children whom she teaches. Ellie was only 19, the night she was brutally stabbed and butchered in her teenager's characteristically messy bedroom.
Graeme Harvey, the veterinarian, again middle-aged, had given Ellie a part-time job, and they had become lovers. One day Margot Harvey, the wife, noticed that her husband had forgotten to take his brown-bag lunch and drove over to deliver it. She saw all. There was a quarrel in the Harvey home, in the course of which Margot attacked her husband with a bottle. Ellie was murdered soon afterwards.
Margot disappeared, her car and shoes found at the edge of sea cliffs notable for suicides. Graeme, left to raise his three children, stayed on in the community, stuck it out. When the novel opens, he is recently dead from throat cancer. People thereabouts have been talking about the terrible crime ever since it happened, the obvious question being: Which of the Harveys killed Ellie, and whatever happened to Margot?
What with one thing and another, different blood types, in addition to that of Ellie, were found here and there. But I mustn't say more, for it goes to the heart of the plot that unfolds as Kate makes her increasingly anxious way through the book's pages. Clearly, the tragedy of Ellie Siddell and her own involvement with the Marnes have parallel qualities. That is what gives the novel its "thriller" aspect and element of suspense. But here the question is of how much of the suspense is real, and how much going on in Kate's head.
The backcloth to the story is the place itself, Tasmania with its convict history that included women prisoners sent out to breed with the men and populate the place. Remnants of the former prison fortress of Port Arthur are there to haunt the present-day population. Then there are the ghosts of the aboriginal people pushed out. Thomas, Lucien's father, presses Kate to arrange for the children to be taught more about their true history and ancestry.
Chloe Hooper, who is not yet 30 years old, is from Melbourne and graduated from the university there. She came to the United States for graduate study at Columbia University on a Fulbright scholarship and interned for a year at the New Yorker magazine. In her novel, she displays a capacity for inventive fiction that achieves much and promises more. Her character Kate, strung out between adult eroticism and fantasies of the independence bestowed by orphanhood and not having to grow up, is a real creation.
Kate finds young Lucien Byronic, and in the novel's closing pages, she walks out to the Suicide Cliffs, where the last traces of Margot Harvey had been found:
"This was where bad children ended up… . At the very edge of the cliff, trees grew horizontally; the stone was pockmarked… . Waves now rose like walls of glass, then shattered … Wind stung at my face and I stood feeling faint. This was the windiest place in the whole world. Wind blew in from Antarctica and still the horizon's line looked flat… . How can you look down without some awareness of the end's proximity, and not be slightly seduced?"
That's very close to the voice of Byron's Don Juan contemplating the plunge into the abyss: the endpoint of the romantic dream.

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