The Precipice, longlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award is a psychological thriller, a genre with which I am not very familiar. I’ve read very few of them, enough to know that I don’t usually like the drip-feed of clues which are supposed to build tension and keep the reader enthralled to the dénouement. For reasons best known to the publisher, the dénouement in this novel is (unless the reader is remarkably dim) as-good-as given away by the cover image, the title and the blurb on the back cover.
So, since I had worked out what was going to happen very early on in the novel, I had to continue reading it for reasons other than the plot.
The characterisation makes for interesting contrasts between the major characters. Thea Farmer, a retired principal on the precipice of moral disorder, reminded me of Barbara Covett in Notes on a Scandal. Like Barbara, she reaches out of her comfort zone to become friends with someone much younger, in this case, a vulnerable twelve-year-old neighbour called Kim who has come to live in the house she once owned. Thea has left her career in disgrace as Barbara did, and she is possessive like Barbara too, assuming a protective role over her new friend to the point of obsession. She’s also possessive about a piece of the bush nearby, believing that she is the only person to know about it and initially very indignant when Kim ventures into it.
The dialogue feels authentic. Largely oblivious to her own failings, Thea is dogmatic, bossy, and supercilious with others, and the reader hears her voice loud and clear through the pages of her journal and her interactions with others in the Blue Mountains community where she lives. She thinks that she confines her judgemental thoughts to the journal, but is losing whatever discretion she may once have had and often speaks her mind as inappropriately as any teenager might. Incredibly nosey, Thea does the third-degree just the way you remember it if you were ever carpeted yourself at school…
(Such teachers are rare in secondary schools these days, and even rarer in primary schools. Teachers can’t be supercilious or sarcastic or dogmatic any more, not with little children who cry so piteously if they are unhappy that their parents must investigate (at length), and not with older ones who get their own back on RateYourTeacher.com. Principals can’t be bombastic and overbearing with their staff either because young teachers won’t stand for it, resigning for greener pastures elsewhere if they’re not happy).
By contrast, young Kim is open-minded, eminently reasonable and very flexible. She is bookish and smart and has an authentic turn of phrase too. Despite a fractured childhood and the apparent absence of any friends her own age, she has mastered the patois they use, sprinkling her conversation with the ubiquitous ‘like’ ‘awesome’ and ‘absolutely’. She takes being bossed about in good spirit, accepting some strictures and ignoring others, and although she has her own boundaries she is willing to accept Thea’s friendship because she is lonely and neglected. Never really having had a proper home of her own, she understands Thea’s sense of loss about the house which she still feels is hers, but she is prescient enough to recognise when Thea trespasses too far, both literally and metaphorically. She might be a bit too wise and too malleable for a twelve-year-old, but Duigan has her own reasons for making her character’s age twelve and not, say, fourteen or fifteen…
Suspicion is of course a key component of any thriller, and Thea’s suspicions of Kim’s adoptive parents are the mainstay of the plot, though there is a lengthy sub-plot about Thea’s writing group. I’ve seen a customer review somewhere that objected to this, but though I agree that the book could well have been pruned without loss, I think it’s the writing group ‘exercises’ that Thea does which provoke her reflections and give authenticity to her journal.
You can find out more about Virginia Duigan at her website.
Author: Virginia Duigan
Title: The Precipice
Publisher: Vintage Books (Random House) 2011
Source: Casey-Cardinia Library