In this debut novel, a British expatriate’s ghostwriting gig leads to a political showdown involving his retired spook neighbor in Queensland.
Tom Pryce-Bowyer, 52, returns from his travels to find Alfred, resident cassowary, on his cabin doorstep in the Queensland rainforest. Fortunately, the nearly 5-foot-2-inch bird is a “gentle giant”; indeed, Tom’s few human neighbors are more problematic, particularly Jack Tryvet, a 60-something and former military intelligence agent who, like Tom, is a British expatriate. Tom discovered that Jack had a long-running affair with Tom’s Canadian doctor wife, Paulette, which led to Tom’s recent divorce. Tom went to the United States because Emmi Jay—a then-married American he met when he and Paulette did volunteer work in Fiji as part of “a hippy diaspora” of the 1970s—proposed Tom as a ghostwriter for a book by Bia Moraes, a celebrated photographer. Tom gets into a long-distance relationship with Emjay and works on Bia’s book. Bia visits Australia, and she and her friends enlist Jack’s help to expose a villainousU.S. general who disobeyed orders during atrocities in late-1990s East Timor, which included the murder of Bia’s lover. The general meets with Jack in Queensland, bringing deadly tumult to Tom’s refuge, although by novel’s end, new hope arises for the aging writer. Debut author de Vaux drops Graham Greene’s name several times and also has Jack describe himself as “the very double of Flashman Paget.” Although there are echoes of Greene in de Vaux’s descriptive tour of exotic locales and the moral quagmires faced by his expatriate characters, Jack isn’t quite convincing as a dashing character. Likewise, the tensions between him and first-person narrator Tom are rather glossed over as Paulette disappears from the book. Tom’s new romance is also somewhat tepid, especially juxtaposed with East Timor–related events. Still, the final sequence with the general is quite riveting, the suspense and danger heightened by Queensland’s strange, wondrous natural habitat.
Multilayered expat saga best as a showcase of its exotic setting.