Darkness On the Edge of Town
Author: Jessie Cole
Publisher: Fourth Estate – HarperCollins
ISBN: 9780732293192 (pbk.)/9780730493853 (ebk)
Published: July, 2012
Jessie Cole was born in 1977 and grew up in an isolated valley in northern New South Wales. In 2009 she was awarded a HarperCollins Varuna Award for Manuscript Development, and her work has appeared in Kill Your Darlings, Meanjin, and the Big Issue. Nowadays, she lives in her childhood home with her two sons.
My dad, he collects broken things…
Where other people see junk he sees potential…
My dad collects broken people too…
Vincent is nearly forty years old, with little to show for his life except his precious sixteen-year-old daughter, Gemma: sensitive, insightful and wise beyond her years.
When a stranger crashes her car outside Vincent and Gemma’s bush home, their lives take a dramatic turn. In an effort to help the stranded woman, father and daughter are drawn into a world of unexpected and life-changing consequences.
DARKNESS ON THE EDGE OF TOWN is a haunting tale that beguiles the reader with its deceptively simple prose, its gripping and unrelenting tensions, and its disturbing yet tender observations.
By the time I’d finished reading Varuna Award winning Jessie Cole’s first novel, Darkness On the Edge of Town, I still really had no idea why it had been titled after a 1978 Bruce Springsteen album. Yeah, sure, there are some goings on at the edge of town, but its not really a Darkness.
Maybe it was that title, coupled with the front cover quote from Robert Drewe – ‘So frighteningly real, it grabs you and shakes you.‘ – and the lines in the back cover blurb about a ‘haunting tale‘ and ‘gripping and unrelenting tension‘ and its ‘disturbing yet tender observations‘, that had my expectations going but I didn’t find the novel particularly dark, haunting, unrelenting or disturbing.
If you can put the misdirected marketing aside though, Darkness On the Edge of Town is still a very good first novel.
Set in and around a rural town the novel opens with Vincent, late thirties, single dad, driving home from the pub. As he rounds the final bend to his house, he comes across an overturned car. Lights still shining and engine running. At the side of the road squats a girl, looking “kind of crumpled and broken“. In her arms she holds a baby. “Its body was limp, its eyes closed.”
It is the appearance of this girl, Rachel, into the lives of Vincent and his sixteen year old daughter Gemma, that drives everything to come in the novel.
The story is told from the alternating first person accounts of Vincent and Gemma. Vincent’s chapters are written in a simple, almost ordinary, prose and this very much sums up the nature of Vincent himself. Unfortunately, Gemma’s voice is very similiar and I couldn’t find much to distinguish them. There is a gentle poetry to this simplicity of no-nonsense prose though, and it keeps you turning the pages.
Another thing that keeps you turning the pages is the building of various tensions. Vincent’s need to help Rachel and bring her into his house has ramifications for just about everyone in the small town. From his daughter Gemma, just turned sixteen, and how this new, damaged, house guest changes her view on her own relationships; with her father and with her potential boyfriend. Threats and jealous ravings from Vincent’s ‘current’ girlfriend Marie. The gossip that fills the town. And Vincent’s own quickness to anger, his innner turmoils questioning the morals of his decision to allow Rachel to stay at their house, and indeed, to sleep in his bed.
There’s a constant thread of the ‘threat of violence’ throughout Darkness On the Edge of Town, too. It is another one of those tensions, probably the major theme, and the author makes a concerted effort to crank it up towards the end. Unfortunate then, that I can’t say it ever really pays off. The climactic scenes seem as constrained as the rest of the prose and fail to lead to the promises of the title, the blurb, or even the story itself.
Overall, Darkness On the Edge of Town is still a well written novel. I read it quickly, and effortlessly, and at no point did I want to put it down. But it never seems to address its themes in any real depth, or at least not enough to make me really feel for any of the characters. What they go through over the course of the story you wouldn’t wish on anyone, but for me the author failed to fully convey that. Which was a shame, because after everything that happened to Vincent and Gemma and Rachel, I really did want to feel something for them.