Bone Lands, Pip Fioretti

Reviewed By
Karen Chisholm

In 1911, Augustus (Gus) Hawkins is a mounted trooper in rural New South Wales. A veteran of the Boer war he's a complex man with a severe case of PTSD and a bad dose of long-standing longing for Flora Kirkbride, eldest of four children of a local "landed gentry" family. Until the night he discovers the bodies of her three younger siblings, brother and two sisters, shot dead on a road that he should have been patrolling. It's the night of the Coronation Dances, a time when the locals gathered in large groups. Which makes their murders doubly surprising, surely somebody's absence would have been noticed. Alas it seems that the only person who everyone thinks was missing in action is Hawkins himself. Instead of doing his patrols he was off bedding the local schoolteacher - something she rapidly denies just when he's in desperate need of an alibi, and some support.

Detectives from Sydney are bought in to run the investigation, but really, how can men from the city understand the dynamics of a small rural area, how the power balances work, with vast distances and little by way of communication other than notes delivered by horseback. 

There is much to be admired in BONE LANDS. Historical in setting and timing, the sense of place and that period is vividly evoked. But the thing that really should grab readers is the voice. Told in first person, Augustus Hawkins is bought to life with care, yet nothing is shied away from. He is a conflicted man, battling the demons that the Boer War left him with. Too many memories of unforgiveable things seen and never forgotten. He's no sufferer of fools, a man who likes a drink, and somebody who is determined to right wrongs where he can. He was also hopelessly attracted to the older, and surviving Kirkbride sister, who suffers dreadfully as a result of the murder of her siblings, and well, there's a twist coming that will probably make readers want to chew up the edges of some of these pages. 

Sadly, despite BONE LANDS being historical in timeframe, there is much that still resonates today. Misogyny, deprivation, race, class, loyalty, power and influence sit alongside poverty, deprivation, hardship, and the effects of inappropriate farming methods on an ancient and fragile land. Domestic violence is part of all of this in, what is right now, a particularly prescient way.

Sense of place is unbelievably strong as well, you can feel the heat and dust, the hard work, the complications of searching for killers in a wide, lightly populated area. You can also feel the tensions associated with the death of three young adult siblings from one of the richest families in the area. The potential motives are obvious, and yet somehow, Hawkins feels something deeper is going on. It turns out it's up to him to find out what, Sydney detectives are out of their depth when it comes to a community lorded over by egos, blackmail, manipulation and scheming.

All of the bad is balanced elegantly on a knife-edge with dry and particularly Australian humour. It feels, on starting out, that this is a novel that is all dark, and quite confronting. But the author here has managed to use Hawkins voice to inject moments of lightness and kindness. It was such a relief to find a man who cares for his horses in particular, sure gruff about it, but caring none-the-less. His respect for Flora, as well as attraction, also shines through. In the middle of a lot of dark, he's a bright, sometimes flickering, light. And he's engaging and very real as a result.

There is a hell of a twist at the end, and in these days, the story probably should come with a trigger warning. This is yet another example of men's poor behaviour, and women's experience because of that. Augustus Hawkins is the sort of exception that we need to find a hell of a lot more of.


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1911, on a winter's night in arid New South Wales wool country, mounted trooper Augustus Hawkins discovers the bodies of three young people. They are scions of the richest family in the district, savagely murdered on a road that Hawkins should have been patrolling, had he not been busy bedding the local schoolteacher.

Detectives arrive from Sydney and the disgraced Hawkins, a traumatised veteran of the Boer War, comes under fierce scrutiny. With his honour and sanity at stake, he becomes hell-bent on finding the murderer. But as ever darker secrets are revealed about the people he thinks of as friends, Hawkins is forced to confront an uncomfortable question: who is paying the price for the new nation's prosperity?

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