The dead have tales to tell, if only we could hear them.
Debut novelist Collins bases her story on the legendary Australian outlaw Jessie Hickman. Born to a coldhearted mother and a loving father who died too soon, Jessie finds herself sold to a traveling circus at age 12. After her closest friend and fellow tightrope walker takes a terrible fall, she leaves the circus for a career in horse rustling, which lands her in prison; eventually, she's given a choice between languishing in jail or breaking horses for Fitz Henry. Of course, in 1917, a female convict is at the mercy of her employer, who is also her legal guardian, and Fitz quickly blackmails her into a brutal marriage. Pregnancy gives Jessie the courage to violently defy her husband, but the battle costs her the baby, as well. On the lam, she's pursued by men seeking rewards and legal retribution. Two of her pursuers—Jack Brown, Fitz’s former drover, and Barlow, the new police officer who’s already fighting some demons of his own—appear like Furies, seeking vindication, vengeance and something more. Curiously, the novel is narrated by Jessie’s dead child. This choice certainly emphasizes the land, which becomes a character in its own right, binding its inhabitants together in shared tribulations, challenging Jessie, Jack and Barlow at every turn. Too often, though, the narrative premise seems forced, unnecessarily drawing attention to the fantastic ability of the undead to know a past it never lived. Prefacing the tale with a brief account of one of Harry Houdini’s escapes also seems strained; Jessie’s horse may be named for the magician, but the allusion rather heavy-handedly foreshadows Jessie’s fate.
Collins richly evokes a heartbreaking emotional terrain, setting it against the sparse, brutal landscape of the Australian Outback.