A bleak coming-of-age debut set in 1940s New South Wales.
Narrator Day, the son of a Viennese Jewish soprano and a rough monosyllabic Scotsman, is 12 when he witnesses his father, Darwin, tying and gagging his mother in bed each night. His mother had been in declining mental health for several years, since a miscarriage and her discovery that her husband was having an affair with Lelonie, a woman who lives and works on their ranch. Then one night, Day sees his father bury his mother in the red sand on the rise by the billabong. She has suffocated. Day runs away, first to the mud brick hut of Leonie, who takes him in overnight (hiding under her bed when his father appears, he finds himself the unwilling witness to their lovemaking). Then he heads to Melbourne, gets a job working with horses and dreams of being a jockey. At 18, he is shipped to a horse farm in Maryland, along with a racehorse named Unusual. He works hard, meets a girl by the name Callie, who also wants to be a jockey, and is drawn into a nocturnal game in which Callie, her groom and he take bets and run races for money. Day is haunted by memories of his mother and of Dickie, the man she seemed attracted to (and who may be his father). Meanwhile, Callie takes off, and Day finds her only six months later, but it seems she’s with another man. He moves to L.A., trains horses, then heads back to Australia, confronts his father and learns some family secrets. Callie sends for him to ride in a race in Mexico, and together they track down Dickie in Santa Barbara. This odd threesome heads down to Australia when Darwin has a stroke. With all the players in one place, Day learns how far he can trust Callie, Dickie and Darwin.
Spare prose, startling images and an emotional landscape as harsh as the setting.