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by Chris Hammer
Touchstone, January 2019
324 pages
ISBN: 150119674X

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Set in the summertime in Australia, SCRUBLANDS opens with a literal bang: a priest opens fire on his congregation, killing five men. Now, a year later, reporter Martin Scarsden has been sent to Riversend to write a story about how the town is coping with the tragedy. Rivesend is a small, close-knit community, and the big-city newspaper Martin works for thinks there will be repercussions that will sell papers. Plus, Martin himself is recovering from a near-death experience in the Gaza Strip and needs to get his reporter's feet back under him. It ought to be a fairly straightforward assignment. It turns out to be anything but.

Because it's summer in the scrublands of Australia, it is blisteringly hot, and the heat and lethargy it inspires permeate Chris Hammer's novel, becoming integral to the unfolding of the story. Riversend's river is, in fact, dry, and the town itself is one step away from being dust. Hammer's descriptions of the abandoned storefronts bring to mind images of America's Old West, and, with them, a sense of outlaw justice and fierce independence. Most residents of Riversend have moved on, and the few who remain all harbor secrets that they'd rather not share with a nosy reporter. Nor do they trust Martin since the last reporter who came through did the town no favors. So they circle the wagons and close ranks to great extent, making Martin work for every tidbit he discovers. As Martin probes for information, he finds that most of the townspeople still like Byron Swift, the contradictory priest who cursed, made people feel special, smoked pot, started a kids' club, was accused of child abuse, and killed five men.

Good or bad? Martin can't pin it down as the heat intensifies and new facts come to light. Is the town drunk really the rapist father of the bookstore owner? Or is he, too, misunderstood? When a wildfire races through the scrublands, Martin and Robbie the police officer risk their lives to save that same town drunk and begin to question the rumors the town has always believed to be true. And when the remains of two bodies are found on the drunk's land, more questions arise. Martin begins to break stories about the bodies and about Byron Swift's mysterious past, but while he earns accolades from his fellow reporters, he opens old wounds among the townspeople, and the deeper he digs into the town's past, the more he begins to question his own motives and way of life, especially as he finds himself becoming more involved with the people of the town than a good reporter ought to be. Unable to keep his distance as he has in the past, he begins to lose his perspective and finds himself creating rifts he may not be able to repair, getting the stories wrong, and having to make hard choices about what to report and how to report it.

Overall, Hammer's novel is filled with action but isn't necessarily a fast read. It doesn't drag, but it invites savoring. The landscape and the people are vividly portrayed, and the plot is incredibly twisted, reaching into the past and sucking in every character we meet before it's all over. It is also filled with surprises as Martin sees every townsperson from all perspectives, and none is without good, nor without fault, making the novel interesting and fulfilling from a psychological standpoint as well as a whodunit (and dunwhat). And while each character continues to surprise, all the actions are, ultimately, believable. The plot and subplots are complex enough to keep things interesting but are not complicated beyond reason or simply for the sake of complication. By the end, everything is explained to great extent and there's a satisfying sense of justice, but an underlying uneasiness remains, and while there's a bit of happily ever after, there's also plenty of reality, including the fact that the soul searching Martin himself does isn't entirely resolved. Thrilling, thought-provoking, and at times deeply unsettling, SCRUBLANDS is Hammer's debut novel, but he has been a journalist for more than thirty years—and it shows in his ability to capture a place and people as well as tell a great story.

§ Meredith Frazier, a writer with a background in English literature, lives in Dallas, Texas

Reviewed by Meredith Frazier, December 2018

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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