Myths of paternity unravel when an orphaned teen returns to her family’s remote Australian farm during the rainy season.
Mood is everything in Armstrong’s debut, a rites-of-passage tale set in a claustrophobic valley community. Heat and rain mingle with mud and mist as illegitimate 14-year-old Allie moves in with Aunt Julia after her mother Mae’s drowning in Sydney harbor. Julia, who lives on the old family spread, is obliterating the farm, turning the land back over to forest while guarding a weighty secret. Mae grew up here with her first love, local boy Saul; years later, she wove stories about the identity of Allie’s father that simultaneously implicated Saul and a mysterious balloon man met at a fair. Allie stalks Saul, but he denies he and Mae were ever lovers. Armstrong ratchets up the symbolism as steamy rains fall, flood levels rise, the forest creeps and sexual liaisons surface. Finally, as the water overflows, we learn the truth about Mae, who was sexually abused by her father. Tired of the loneliness created by her burden of silence and pushed over the edge by her married lover’s violence, she chose death. Written with a touching absorption in its slender material, the novel finally finds Allie accepting the reasons behind her mother’s watery suicide.
Armstrong is talented, but her emotional delicacy is in danger of drowning in the portentous atmospherics.