2010, 422 p
It seems to me that most recently-published Australian fiction books hover around the 300 page mark, and it’s relatively rare to have a book that extends over the 400 page range. So, at 422 pages, Time’s Long Ruin is a lengthy book, reflecting the title that is drawn from one of the three lengthy epigraphs on the opening pages. As a book, it felt long too. Part I, which was 179 pages in length, functioned to set the scene and introduce the main characters. Part II at 243 pages traced the slow-motion disappearance of the children at the centre of the narrative, then the long unspooling of a fruitless investigation and the unresolved grief of family and friends- a grief, anxiety and perplexity that still lurks behind parenting and child crimes today.
The plot is loosely based on the Beaumont children who disappeared in 1967 but the author relocated the timing to the early 1960s instead. Given that the author himself was born in 1967, the rendering of 1960s Adelaide is drawn from research rather than memory, which is quite an achievement in itself. Much of the book has the elegiac feel of a wistful memoir, with details and sensations piled on heavily- a little too heavily, I think, because it felt at times like a lengthy oral history. There is an element of slippage in the narrator: at first it is an adult Henry, still living in his family home many years later looking back on his childhood, but then the ‘memoir’ voice morphs into the child’s eye view of Henry, the nine-year old next door neighbour of the Riley children who disappeared. This child’s-eye view of suburbia and the tapestry of local shopkeepers, teachers, doctors and neighbours is both perceptive and oblivious at the same time.
Perhaps the fact that the author himself is younger than the events he is describing accounts for a major infelicity that troubled me in the book. The minute, step-by-step description of the children’s trip to the beach by train suggests that neighbours and incidental witnesses noticed the children heading off to the beach, as if there were something unusual or incongruous about it. I’m not sure that there was. A group of three children, especially, would have the run of the neighbourhood, and a train-line was just an extension of that neighbourhood. I’m sure that the parents of the real-life missing children blamed themselves and each other afterward, and I think that the blood every parent of a child of the 60s- of which I am one- ran cold at the Beaumont case (and still does). But at Beaumont-time and even after, children continued to roam the streets in little groups, returning home only when the street lights came on, going from one friend’s house to another, catching buses and trains with little parental oversight- I know, because we did. There was nothing so unusual in the latitude given to the fictional Riley children.
The author is quite clear, even by the subtitle of the book that it is fiction, and by warping the time-frame in the way he has, he gives himself licence to evoke other Adelaide-based mysteries and insecurities as well- the Somerton Man case of 1949 (which I’d never heard of- I thought that Taman Shud were a band !) and hints of the Snowtown murders of the 1990s by placing one of the main characters there at the time of the children’s disappearance. In this regard, I felt as if my Adelaide-buttons were being pressed to trigger my knee-jerk reactions to Adelaide mythology- disappearances, dead bodies, and Don Bradman. It seems a little too easy to do.
In the lengthy second half, the author of course is faced with the dilemma that having based his plot so closely on the Beaumont children, of course there could be no resolution. Much of the narrative in Part II involves disclaimers “I couldn’t know, but I imagine that it went like this….”. Combined with the long scene-setting in Part I, this contributes to a nebulousness about the whole endeavour, which is offset to some extent by the meticulous detailing of place and milieu.
The book was long-listed for the 2011 Miles Franklin Prize but did not make the cut into the very short short-list. I think that this is appropriate on both levels- it does deserve recognition as a careful depiction of Australian life, but I’m not sure that it is the highest expression of this.
Read because: it was long-listed for the 2011 Miles Franklin.