Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 7, 2018

Dustfall (2018), by Michelle Johnston

Every now and again I come across a book so deeply satisfying that I think to myself, Australian publishing is in good hands.  So it is with Dustfall, the debut novel of WA doctor Michelle Johnston, and published by UWAP who consistently publish worthwhile novels.  On a day that follows an historic decision by the ACCC to lay charges against senior executives of the ANZ bank, I finished this story of Wittenoom and wondered why corporate crime is so rarely held to account.  The next day the ANZ story was buried beneath an avalanche of trivia, and the story of a negligent UK doctor is given great prominence.  An interesting juxtaposition…

Johnston’s story is framed around two narratives, both featuring doctors who have made mistakes.  As Michelle Johnston says in this interview with Amanda Curtin, there’s a world of difference between the way that medical errors and corporate errors are judged and yet the consequences can be equally fatal for individuals.

Dustfall begins with Dr Lou Fitzgerald’s agonised flight from her medical mistake: in a car not suited to outback roads and without any plan except to get away, she hurtles inland from Port Hedland on the WA coast in the Pilbara.  South east, three and a half hours away she stumbles into the ghost town of Wittenoom, notorious in Australia as the place which knowingly condemned its workers and inhabitants to cruel deaths from asbestosis and mesothelioma.  After years in which the corporate owners of the asbestos mine and government authorities ignored health warnings, the mine was finally closed for economic reasons in 1966.

Along with incentives to encourage residents to leave, from 1978 town services and infrastructure were phased down and Wittenoom was de-gazetted in 2007.  As in real life, Lou in the 21st century finds the site has not been rehabilitated because there is no safe level of exposure to asbestos, yet – also as in real life – there is someone living there despite the danger (reminding me of Lois Murphy’s story Soon, which though set in Tasmania, features a group of residents who for various reasons won’t leave a place that is highly dangerous).

When she opens the car door and the interior light clicks on, she can see that there are scattered rocks near the front wheel.  She picks one up, turning it over. It has a silvery seam cut through the middle, and the fibres pull off with little effort.  They look like the grizzled hair of an old man, and she realises this is asbestos, right here in her hand.  She knows how dangerous the filaments are; that inhaling a single fibre can sound the march of death, so she drops the rock and wipes her hands on her pants, but then thinks, what does it matter anyway?  (p.9-10)

So it is that Lou meets up with Dave, the son of a miner now suffering lung disease in Perth.  When he learns that she writes, furiously, as balm for her anguished soul, he is keen for her to write the story of Wittenoom using evidence he has harvested from the town.

Johnston describes the exquisite beauty of this nightmarish place in breathtaking prose.  Lou goes exploring in her little car, discovering the Karajini gorges:

Arriving at a dry creek bed, she sees she can take the car no further, so she parks and sets out into the vastness.  The air is unruffled, still.  Occasionally a bird call punctuates the wide silence, but otherwise there is nothing.  A bridge crosses the carved-out waterway, although a third of the way along it has collapsed and fragmented.  Huge rocky clumps are piled up in front of it as if they have been swept there by some tidal broom.  Fanning down the creek bed is debris, coppery red and brown, and she realises it’s a diorama forged by the raging of seasons, seasons which are biblical in their excess.  She can picture the staggering tropical flashes, the downpours flattening anything not firmly rooted, and then the torrents which course through those trenches one minute and dry up without a trace the next.  There’s not a cloud overhead.  There’ll be no divine flood today.  Shame, really – she could open her arms to it and let it take her, or at least ravage her clean.  (p.28)

A little further on, she sees the sign: Go no further without respirator. Toxic waste present.

Where, she wonders? Here it looks like untouched wilderness, all ancient stripes of metallic rock and rusted earth.  Are there still fibres floating around?  A name comes to her – crocidolite, the most malign of the asbestos fibres, with its deceptive and cartoonish dumbbell shape.  She’s never seen a case of mesothelioma, and she’s not likely to, now.  But she’s learned about it.  (p.28)

Running parallel with Lou’s story is the story of Dr Raymond Filigree, who arrives in Wittenoom in 1966 as an escape from a disastrous career in England.  Neither his error nor Lou’s is explained until quite late in the novel, which suspends the reader’s moral judgement and enables a focus on how these two characters earn redemption as the novel progresses.  Dr Filigree is young and naïve and hopelessly overburdened with responsibility as the only doctor in charge of the new hospital, while Lou is shattered by the end of her career and can’t get the guilt out of her head.

Dr Filigree knows nothing at all about asbestos, but he’s appalled by the levels of dust in the town and by the way that tailings are used all over the town for all sorts of purposes.  He hears tell-tale breathing sounds from damaged lungs and he reads Pliny the Elder who shortly after the birth of Christ described asbestos and who wrote unambiguously about…

… how anyone, even the slaves, who worked with the dust of the mineral, had to wear respirators, in the form of sheep bladders.  Respirators.  Back then.  Pliny also discouraged anyone from the purchase of slaves if they’d mined the stuff, because of their unfortunate and expensive habit of dying young from a sickness in the lungs.  (p.148-9)

Hampered by a conspiracy of silence and fear, Dr Filigree tries to tackle unsafe work practices.  He has a baptism of fire when there’s an explosion and the casualties flood the hospital before he’s even had time to locate equipment.  It takes him a while to discover the extent of the corporate perfidy and to find out just how good they are at cover-ups.  Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose… 

Dustfall doesn’t come with a sticker proclaiming that it’s based on a true story, but it is meticulously researched.  There were two doctors who raised the alarm: Dr Eric Saint, in 1948, and Dr Jim McNulty in the 1950s. They were ignored.  (You can read more about this history at the Australian Asbestos Network site).  Dustfall is a powerful, important, utterly compelling story which deserves much more attention than it’s had so far.  Read it, and spread the word!

Before he was demobbed after WW2 my father in England spent time decommissioning naval ships which, he said, were full of asbestos, and dozens, maybe hundreds of soldiers like him removed it without any protective gear.  He lived into his 90s, with no sign of any lung disease.  But in the 1980s, I unwittingly helped my sister-in-law to remove asbestos sheeting in her laundry, and she died of lung disease within ten years of it.  Neither of us knew then about the danger of third wave asbestos deaths, and since she was a heavy smoker no one even thought to join the dots.  The asbestos legacy is a wicked one indeed.

You can find out more about Michelle Johnston at her website.

PS Jacinta Halloran, also a doctor, wrote a very fine book called Dissection.  It also illuminates the personal cost to doctors accused of medical negligence.

Author: Michelle Johnston
Title: Dustfall
Publisher: UWAP (University of Western Australia Publishing), 2018
ISBN: 9781742589640
Source: Personal library.  I don’t know who to thank for bringing this fine novel to my attention or why or when I bought it.  The sticker on the back doesn’t name the retailer, but it cost $26.99.

Available from Fishpond: Dustfall: A Novel


  1. I’ve only read the first paragraph of your review because I bought this book on my trip to Oz and haven’t read it yet. I’ll come back and leave a comment when I do. But it sounds like I’m in for a treat.


    • Fantastic:) Just curious… what made you decide to pick it up?

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’m slightly obsessed by wittenoom. I read a book about it called Blue Murder by Ben Hills in my early 20s and that fuelled my interest in social justice / corporate manslaughter.


  2. Terrific review Lisa. I really must get on and source a copy of this novel. I’ve been wanting to read it ever since I first heard of it.


    • Wonderful! I think that as a writer you will really appreciate the way she has so cleverly woven past and present together.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I am hypercritical of novels in ‘my space’ but I should try this one. The government(s) have been so desperate to close Wittenoom that there are blank spaces on all the road signs where it used to be. I’ve been there, it’s a long way off the highway, but Fortescue have an iron ore mine close by which I’ve heard, itself has a largely undisclosed asbestos problem.


    • Gosh, Bill, will you please keep away from there! Johnston, who’s a doctor as I said, says that a single exposure can do for you!


  4. […] Class is an issue that permeates the book.  All the adults that Enza knew were working people, and industrial accidents were regular events.  Her own father was lucky not to have broken his back but he lost part of a finger at work.  The working men who lost their lives in what is still Australia’s worst industrial accident died because their employers failed to provide a safe workplace. And they have never been held to account, because corporate Australia never is held to account for these preventable deaths.  (No one went to gaol over the wilful negligence at Wittenoom either, an issue explored in Michelle Johnston’s Dustfall which I recently reviewed). […]


  5. […] we are on the edge of life and death and that can lead to burnout. Dr. Michelle Johnston (Dustfall) did a fantastic job the during the ACEM18 opening presentation highlighting what we do […]


  6. […] Dustfall, by Michelle Johnston […]


  7. […] Dustfall by Michelle Johnston […]


  8. […] reminded me of other fine novels about the pressure on doctors to be perfect: see my reviews of Dustfall by Michelle Johnston and Dissection by Jacinta Halloran).  There is a junior doctor too, who becomes a victim of this […]


  9. […] Dustfall by Michelle Johnston (see my review) […]


  10. […] made, while corporate monsters and their agents feel not a shred of it.  (This reminds me of Michelle Johnston’s Dustfall and how a doctor’s guilt is contrasted with the lack of corporate responsibility for […]


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