Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 13, 2017

Hinterland, by Steven Lang

Hinterland, Steven Lang’s third novel, is a very Australian story – a very Queensland story if it comes to that – but its themes are universal.  All over the world people living in lovely places find themselves having to defend their patch against development.  As in other places around the world, all around the Australian coastline, and in congenial inland places within commuting distance of the overcrowded cities, there are plans for apartments and housing developments, holiday and weekender accommodation, shopping centres, and posh new mansions for the multi-homed rich.  That kind of development breeds infrastructure development: bigger roads, sewage and rubbish disposal systems, electricity and water supply.  In Lang’s new novel set in the fictional town of Winderran,  plans for a dam are ruffling feathers and not just because it would cut through some land that’s been restored from desertification.

The cast of characters includes tree-changers, blow-in greenies and people with long-established roots in the district.  These characters are introduced by multiple narrators who all know each other with varying degrees of familiarity, each narration having its own distinctive voice.  The story begins through Miles, the ageing doctor who’s taken to dealing with grief after the death of his wife, with alcohol.  He knows everybody, from old Margaret Ewart living an independent life in dignified poverty, to Helen Lamprey, dying from cancer while her husband Guy, an author who’s lost his mojo, flirts with politics as a career alternative.   Through Miles the reader sees that the town has a population of older residents augmented by the influx of wealthy retirees, and children. The generation in between has mostly fled, for brighter prospects elsewhere, though some are trickling in to service the needs of the growing population in places like the hospital and the medical centre.  And – isolating themselves on the edge of town – there are also some creepy army veterans whose psychological damage distorts the ordinary humanity that most people share.

The second narrator, Dr Nick Lasker, has come to Winderran to escape his failed marriage, not deluding himself as to its cause.  He’s an incorrigible womaniser who knows he should know better.   Yet everywhere he goes, he’s sizing women up.  In a bar where he’s hoping to meet up with an attractive nurse, he’s still eyeing off other women while he waits:

She stood up, almost colliding with a young man coming in the door.  Nick watched as she wove her way back through the tables.  A nice shape to her hips.  Miles had said something to him one night in reference to women, how they no longer exerted power over him in the way they once had.  Women, he’d said, had become just like other people now … he could relate to them based on who they were, on what they said or thought, as if they were nothing more than attractively shaped men.  It wasn’t a concept Nick could even begin to embrace.  (p.164)

Nick isn’t much good at socialising, but in a small town, it’s obligatory.  Attendance at a concert organised by the wealthy widow Sophie Allenby allows for the introduction of the town’s movers and shakers, the guy who runs the art gallery, the big pharma bloke, and Peter Mayska, a billionaire mining magnate who has enough power to hush things up when his teenage son is beaten up by some thugs at a training camp.  Mayska knows how to compromise people so that they comply, and he has connections with Aldous Bain who’s the Shadow Minister for Energy and Employment.  It turns out that under the bonhomie Mayska has some very creepy plans for extending his domain…

But the little people have connections of their own.  Where the pro-dammers have a capacity to infiltrate networks, the medical receptionist knows who to call with an important lead.  The easy friendliness of landowner Lindl towards Ange the greenie interloper leads to information that Eugenie the nurse-turned-activist can use.  From this point in the novel the tension heightens: Eugenie’s creaky marriage falters as she takes more and more risks.  Her domineering husband has never been physically violent but the threat is there, and at the same time the extent to which the pro-dammers will go to get their way ratchets up a level.  From being an enjoyable, engaging novel about small-town life under threat, Hinterland becomes a gripping page-turner.

In Australia as elsewhere, the attachment to place takes many forms.  Nick, new to Winderran and still searching for some meaning to his life, confronts it like this when Eugenie tries to explain:

‘I think it’s important to choose where you live,’ she said.  ‘I mean, I don’t think it’s random.  We have this idea that we can live anywhere, that we make the choice, but it’s not true, there are places that are for you and places that aren’t. Sometimes it’s hard to tell which is which.  The only way to know is to listen.’  Wondering if he agreed with that, or thought it was new-age nonsense, wanting to go on and qualify it with stuff about Aboriginal connection to land, the whole philosophical argument that Lindl liked to lay out to justify what was, after all, just a feeling – Lindl who was the least hippieish of anyone she’d ever met – but holding back because of the magic of the small forest, its tops blown westward by the coastal winds, its branches tightly woven by those same forces, could, she thought, speak for itself.  Stopping, once, to lie off to the side of the path amid fox-tail fern and fallen leaves, to look up through casuarina leaves at the perfect sky. (p.216)

It’s impossible to read this book without being aware of the beauty of the hinterland, and why it’s under pressure from more people wanting to live there.  But Lang has carefully constructed his characters: the rich and powerful are not stereotypes, and the flawed have likeable traits as well.  Mayska has an art collection to rival a small European gallery, and he’s a highly intelligent, sophisticated migrant who’s made his wealth himself through sheer hard work.  Yes, it’s Sophia Allenby’s own daughter who plays the piano in chapter two, but she’s a talented artiste and not just a dud whose mother has the money and the power to drag in a captive audience.  Old Dr Miles had a shabby finale to his career, but the whole town turned out for his funeral because they liked him, and even Nick – a character that I disliked – has redeeming features.  Like Lang’s other novels, Hinterland is rich with complex characters and ethical dilemmas that are relevant for our time.

Highly recommended.

Author: Steven Lang
Title: Hinterland
Publisher: UQP (University of Queensland Press), 2017
ISBN: 9780702259654
Review copy courtesy of UQP

Available from Fishpond: Hinterland


Responses

  1. This one is on my list. Not sure who dangled it in front of me in the first place, either you or Gummie.

    • You might have read my recent review of his first novel The Accidental Terrorist, which made reference to having a copy of Hinterland which was then under embargo.
      I love his books. It’s a pity we have to wait so long between new ones!

      • That was probably it. Sometimes I see a new name here and then go looking at titles.

  2. I don’t feel tempted at all, and I don’t know what is that doesn’t tempt. And probably if it was an audio book I’d listen through to the end And think about the issues.

    • *chuckle* Not your literary era?
      BTW are there fights over dams in WA like there are in Qld?

      • I was going to say no rivers, but expansion of the Ord scene requires negotiation and damming the Fitzroy would be up there with all the great battles. Our real water supply is underground and we’ve barely started to use – it’s mainly just a nuisance for miners.

        • We had our last great dam battle over the Thompson. But every now and again when the northwest floods, there are calls for a dam to deal with it.

  3. […] a day or so when I wrote my review of Steven Lang’s Hinterland, I noted that his story of a battle over development in Queensland had universal themes […]


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