Tank Water, Michael Burge

Reviewed By
Karen Chisholm

Small towns, big secrets, inter-generational trauma, unquestioned deaths, fractured families, kids moving away and never returning, all the sorts of things that sound so very familiar to many of us who grew up in rural Australia from more recent history, back, unfortunately, for generations.

James Brandt comes from one of those small towns, on the NSW / Queensland border, where the families that live in and around have been there for many generations. In his own case, grandparents, aunt, uncle and cousins, his parents and his own sibling all live on the same farm, in houses built within running distance of each other, lives intertwined by generations growing up, working together, sticking together and keeping their secrets. Until somebody, in this case arguably James's own mother, who divorced their father and set a precedent, followed by others of his generation, leave town, build a life, all the while keeping secrets. In James's case a happy life with a same sex partner which nobody in the older family knows about, a job as a journalist, and his own secret memories of his cousin Tony.

It's Tony's funeral that calls James home, and initially it might seem a little unexpected, but Tony died so unexpectedly, supposedly yet another rural male suicide, jumping from the bridge in town, or so everyone seems content to believe. James comes back to find his own recently retired cop father more than eager to write off the death to the uncomfortably easiest conclusion, Tony's own parents resigned to the loss of their son, and the discovery that the farm has been left to James. As the truth about what goes on at that bridge starts to emerge, when the story of Tony's failed marriage and his and James connection as young men is revealed, James's job as a journalist gives him both the skills, and the tenacity to stick with his sense that something's not right about this verdict, and something's definitely not right with this society.

Flicking between the two timeframes - the mid 1980's and 2000's - the story of the past and the present merge together to reveal just how many secrets people can keep. The exploration of inter-generational trauma is particularly elegantly handled, there are plenty of question marks over just how long homophobia, violence, abuse and bigotry have been endured by too many people. There are also plenty of characters here that make you realise that even in small towns, there are people who aren't good, aren't decent, and shouldn't be tolerated. The question here is always, who knew, who ignored, who instigated and who simply didn't care.

Slowly, measuredly paced, until the final stages, when events really start to escalate and James is pushed into a position of having to understand in order to save himself, TANK WATER isn't an easy read, but then it's not meant to be. There's nothing easy about revealing what happened here nor is it easy to realise that it's still happening somewhere today. Books like TANK WATER explore the sorts of casual homophobia, racism and disrespect that lead to violence and suffering, and hopefully get those failings dragged kicking and screaming into the light.


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James Brandt didn’t look back when he got away from his rural hometown as a teenager. Now, he’s returned to Kippen for the first time in twenty years because his cousin Tony has been found dead under the local bridge.

The news that Tony has left him the entire family farm triggers James’s journalistic curiosity – and his anxiety – both of which cropped up during his turbulent journey to adulthood. But it is the unexpected homophobic attack he survives that draws James into a hunt for the reasons one lonely Kippen farm boy in every generation kills himself.

Standing in the way is James’s father, the town’s recently retired top cop, who is not prepared to investigate crimes no-one reckons have taken place. James must use every newshound’s trick he ever learned in order to uncover the brutal truth.

A coming-of-age story and crime thriller with a large and gentle heart.

Review Tank Water, Michael Burge
Karen Chisholm
Thursday, October 14, 2021

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