A man heads from LA to his native Australia to check on his ailing mother and ends up refereeing a host of domestic squabbles instead.
Daniel, the narrator of Francis’ likable if unpolished third novel (Stray Dog Winter, 2009, etc.), is a lawyer planning a comfortable Christmas with his new girlfriend, Isabel, when his mother, Ruthie, calls from rural southeast Australia saying she’ll be “dead as Dickens by the end of the year.” Upon his arrival, though, it’s clear mom lured him back to help with disarray on the homestead. Ruthie has long been estranged from Daniel’s philandering father, Earley, who has stoked enough jealousy and anger in a tenant, Sharen, that she set fire to a car on the property. All three have gathered up a generation or two’s worth of resentments, and the place is feral: Sharen keeps a horse in a spare room in her cottage, and Sharen’s son, Reggie, openly spies on Daniel. But Francis proves that this reckless landscape also has a darkly seductive pull, underscored by Daniel’s growing attraction to Sharen, an attractive pot-smoking free spirit. Their ill-advised and speedy fling (the novel takes place over the course of a week) is the novel’s main energy source, to the point where other elements pale in comparison. Earley and the other locals are relatively distant figures (Isabel commands a lot of the word count but plays a minor role), and while Reggie owns the stage in the brief interludes he narrates, the threats of the arrival of his father on the scene don’t amount to much. Ultimately this is a conventional midlife crisis tale, but one bolstered by Francis’ sharp language about a landscape where “death and hardship are passed off...like so many handkerchiefs, laughed away with a weary acceptance.”
Domestic drama with an offbeat, rural flavor.