Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 25, 2012

The Precipice (2011), by Virginia Duigan

The PrecipiceThe 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  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.

Kirsten Alexander reviewed The Precipice for ABC Radio National’s now defunct Book Show.  For other reviews see Perry Middlemiss’s Matilda.

You can find out more about Virginia Duigan at her website.

©Lisa Hill

Author: Virginia Duigan
Title: The Precipice
Publisher: Vintage Books (Random House) 2011
ISBN: 9781741667165
Source: Casey-Cardinia Library

Fishpond: The Precipice


  1. Hmm, damning with faint praise?


    • Be nice, Tony, I’m doing my best with a genre I don’t read!


  2. I am waiting on this to arrive to read, I had never heard of it before it was long listed and its a genre I enjoy so i am really looking forward to reading it


    • That’s the good thing about prizes, it makes us aware of the best that’s out there! If only Campbell Newman understood that!


  3. […] PRECIPICE has been reviewed at ANZ Lit Lovers, Aust Crime Fiction and Radio […]


  4. For interest, this is my review (March 2008) of Virginia Duigan’s previous novel, The Biographer, published in the ABR. If two swallows do not a summer make, two novels, no matter how similar, are no doubt insufficient to start a new literary sub-genre (no matter how sub). On the other hand, fashion is said to reflect the Zeitgeist; and in this turbulent millennium biography has become both favoured and fashionable. Is it possible that, quite soon, a small shelf of the local library’s collection will be grouped under the heading ‘Biography as Threat’?
    Borrowers might find only a small number of novels occupying the space, but one of them would surely be the enthralling City of your Final Destination (2002), written by American author Peter Cameron and shortly to be filmed by Merchant-Ivory Productions; next in alphabetical order would be Duigan’s The Biographer, an Australian contribution. (I should perhaps make it clear that despite some striking similarities I am not suggesting any kind of undue influence, but rather a kind of global parthenogenesis.)
    Extrapolating from these two examples, the human constituents of the new sub-genre would include a biographical subject, male and old enough to have already lived a very interesting life; his wife and/or mistress, harbouring brooding reservations about the projected biography; and two or three closely connected individuals, also with personal views, positive and negative, about the enterprise. This group forms an isolated enclave in or around an ancient dwelling in some exotic or beautiful setting (Uruguay for Cameron, Tuscany for Duigan). Then along comes the biographer, the outsider who stirs up the action. In the specified cases they are both masculine, but the male gender is not an absolute. Janet Malcolm would surely qualify for the non-fiction section of this shelf, given her fraught attempt to muster family co-operation for her book on Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, The Silent Woman (1994). All that’s really required is for the biographer to be seen as a menace, an intruder who will nose his way into locked cupboards and uncover secrets that should never meet the light of day. Such novels therefore begin with an argument about permission — to give or to withhold? For the sake of the oeuvre, however, vanity always vanquishes caution.
    Duigan, who has worked as a journalist, broadcaster, editor and TV scriptwriter, and is the author of an earlier novel, Days Like These (2001), now to be republished, writes with professional skill and ease. Her vocabulary is adroitly chosen, her sentences beautifully balanced, her minor characters vividly sketched. Here they include Mischa Svoboda, the biographical subject, famous artist, Czech national, and warm but single-minded bear of a man. Mischa and his partner, Melbourne-born Greer Gordan, inhabit a small artists’ compound in the Tuscan hills. Once a castello, its old stone buildings now provide living quarters for residents and visitors, a couple of studios where the artists work, and a winery. This last is managed by Greer and Guy, a non-painting man and partner of the older artist, Rollo. Their pug-dogs, plus various hangers-on, add interest, charm and local colour, as do the descriptions of landscape, changing seasons, vines, olives, food, wine, flower gardens and misty vistas.
    The intrusive biographer, Tony Corbino, is a well-drawn, rather oily young American who knows how to placate. He is equipped with two tape-recorders, one for the interviews and one for recording his own commentary on them. We thus learn through a kind of meta-discourse what the issues are for him; but Greer is the central character and the person with everything to fear from the biographer’s probings. There are actually two secrets shaping the narrative: the first is the mystery clouding her past, which she absolutely does not want to revisit; the second is Tony’s devious manner. Greer cannot establish, and is deeply worried about, how much Tony already knows, given that Monteleccio is not his first port of call; he has already done some snooping around in Melbourne and Sydney.
    Greer’s qualms are confided directly and frequently but without obtaining much grip on the reader. There is a limit to the amount of concern and interest that can be generated in a story totally veiled by sthe subject’s apprehension. It’s not long before you become impatient with her well-modulated voice efficiently organising the day-to-day activities and fabric of the castello, plus the interaction between the various protagonists, while inwardly wallowing in an angst that dare not speak its name.
    The disclosures in Greer’s twenty-five year old diary, which she unwillingly forces herself to read, exhume the painful memories she has not explored for some time, but one does not have to be a Miss Marple to make an approximate guess as to what they might involve. When the reader twigs, the interest moves from the what to the when, the how, and the what happened next. All of these are less obvious, allowing the novel to take off in the last twenty pages, when it suddenly gains the dramatic tension it has so far lacked and gives us a glimpse of fresh characters who are not mannered, picturesque or neurotic. It is a moot point whether the revelations make up for the earlier dragging pace and the fact that Greer is too repressive a woman to be very engaging; but that is not even the most interesting question to ask. As said, Duigan is a professional and experienced journalist who, according to her press release, worked in many spheres ‘before becoming a novelist’. Has she become a novelist? To do that, as distinct from writing novels and even getting them published, is a serious and ambitious aim, or claim, and somehow I feel that Duigan’s very accomplishments have worked against it.


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