I’ll confess up front that I approached Jessie Cole’s Darkness on the edge of town with a sense of anxiety. And not because of Robert Drewe’s shout line on the front cover warning that the novel is ‘so frighteningly real’. I’ve always been an enthusiastic compiler of lists. I’m also a dedicated fan of early Bruce Springsteen music. His 1978 album of the same title as this novel dead-heats with Nebraska (1982) as my favourite Springsteen albums. They are also my top-ranking albums of all time (with apologies to the Stones Exile on Main Street). Darkness is a haunting record, both lyrically and musically. I was relieved then, that by the last pages of the novel I was satisfied that similar qualities – a foreboding atmosphere of unease and haunting – is at the heart of the damaged landscapes and characters created by Cole with finesse.
The novel begins with a car crash, a dramatic device I warn my writing students to avoid. I also tell them that a good writer breaks the rules and produces good, even great writing. Cole cleverly uses a conventional cinematic image – for instance, Sailor (Nicholas Cage) and Lula (Laura Dern) stumbling across a bloodied car wreck in David Lynch’s Wild At Heart (1990) or even Springsteen’s ‘Wreck on the Highway’ from The River (1980) – to ignite a sense of mystery that she sustains throughout the story.
Vince, the single father of sixteen-year-old Gemma is a likable man living on the outskirts of a rural town. He coaches the local junior football team, works the land, and takes unexpected challenges in his stride. He also collects stuff, ‘broken things’ and ‘broken people’, Gemma tells us. When Vince comes across a car wreck over the road from the family home, and discovers a young woman, Rachel, trapped inside, his relative sense of peace is thrown into chaos. We soon understand that Rachel is seriously damaged, not only by the immediate impact of the car accident and its tragic consequences, but a life of damage that she carries with her.
Vince does all he can to help the injured young woman, too much perhaps, which establishes a tension of its own. When Rachel crawls into his bed late one night, he questions whether letting her stay is the sensible thing to do – as does the reader, contemplating how badly this display of care and affection may end. Gemma, Vince’s daughter, is torn between her own sense of care for broken things, a trait most likely inherited from her father, and the emotional disruption that Rachel’s presence brings to her relationship with her dad. At this point in the novel, Darkness on the edge of town presents a somewhat fractured domestic ménage. Had the focus of the story remained with the three central characters, the novel would have been enjoyable, as the writing is very good, but predictably so.
What makes the book so good is the realisation of the consequences of ‘the stranger’ disrupting the comfort of familiarity within insular communities. Rachel is certainly a mysterious character, and one who we immediately suspect carries trouble with her. But she is of greater threat to some in this country town simply because she is the outsider, looked upon with suspicion and mistrust. As the tension builds around Vince, Gemma and Rachel, it becomes clear that the consequences for the three of them will inevitably lead to further tragedy.
Cole is one of a number of younger female writers drawing our attention to lives lived on the margins. Along with Favel Parrett, Romy Ash and Jennifer Mills (among others), she focuses the writer’s eye on an Australia both familiar and hidden, creating stories that make some readers feel uncomfortable. But these are stories essential to our understanding of the Australian landscape and those who inhabit it, where tenderness and violence accompany each other in an eerie pact of necessity. While there is a necessary debate occurring in Australia around the value of literary prizes and who they go to, Jessie Cole has rewarded us instead with a novel that leaves us with much to think about.