Review - ON CRINGILA HILL, Noel Beddoe
The author of ON CRINGILA HILL has worked as a high school principal for twenty years, and been involved in Aboriginal eduation for most of his adult life, becoming the inaugural chairperson of the Aboriginal Education Reference Group. Which did seem to make this, his first crime novel, an intriguing prospect. Set in the past, in a community made up immigrants from a range of different backgrounds and religions, in a real location, part of Wollongong in NSW.
Not an area I know a lot about, so I can't say whether it's accurately portrayed but it certainly felt realistic. Shadowed by the major Steelworks, many of the main players in this story have families that have been drawn to the prospect of jobs, of a lifestyle more affluent and prosperous than that left behind. There's some lovely little displays of the differences in the past and the present - in particular the Macedonian grandfather who is still fascinated by a kettle that can turn itself off when the water has boiled. The same Macedonian grandfather who is ruthless in protecting his own, a powerhouse in the community, respected and feared. A man with plenty of secrets of his own.
Echoing the secrets that his grandson Jimmy and friend Piggy are hiding about the night that they witnessed the shooting of a teenage boy. A teenager involved in an appalling attack on a young girl - schoolgirl sweetheart of Jimmy, immigrant daughter of an Islander family. Another outsider in an area struggling with the tensions between the longer term Macedonian and Turkish residents, the newer immigrants of Italian and Greek background, and the Islander groups. Overlaying any ethnic tensions are the well known influences of drugs, gangs, violence and racketeering. It's a story that's well known in many working class suburbs of Australia and it's drawn out in ON CRINGILA HILL in a realistic, yet non-judgemental manner.
Add to that mix a policeman physically inhibited by a severe back injury, his wife who is struggling with her own role in life and the damage this case will do to his long-term relationship with a much admired colleague and you're looking at a rather bleak environment.
Surprisingly, bleak in a good way. ON CRINGILA HILL isn't a comfortable, entertaining book because it's obviously not meant to be. In it's own particularly low key style, it's engrossing. It's laying bare a world that is flawed and tricky, with the occasional brief glimpse of hope. Same with the characters who inhabit that world. All of which culminated in an ending that was full of loss and hope, with some things resolved and some things left raw and broken.
When a teenage boy is killed in a targeted shooting, the events that unfold rock the lives of the migrant families of Cringila. School friends Jimmy and Piggy have witnessed the violent crime, but need to protect their fledgling drug business.
After seasoned police detective Gordon Winter is assigned the murder case, his investigations uncover long-buried secrets and an entrenched culture of loyalty and fear.
On Cringila Hill weaves a gripping story of power, racial tensions and blood ties in a once-vibrant industrial community.
As I was born and brought up in Primbee, on Lake Illawarra, and attended Port Kembla High School, I could relate to every aspect in this book. I worked in the Steelworks in the 1980's, as did my husband, father-in-law, brothers -in-law and, even now, my son-in-law. I also worked as a casual teacher at Warrawong High School. I used to watch my Hungarian husband play cricket on Cringila oval. The places mentioned in this novel are meticulously correct and the characters drawn with the author's keen perception. It was like taking a journey through my past. As a footnote, I might add that at the time when the Steelworks was booming, the migrants of Cringila were earning a heap of money due to all the overtime available. They bought islands off the Yugoslav coast, and many eventually built large, brick homes in Blackbutt estate, Shellharbour and in Barrack Heights. Of course, we were all affected by the downsizing of the Steelworks and the loss of jobs and the subsequent rise in crime, drugs and poverty.