Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 5, 2018

Sign, by Colin Dray

This is a road story with a difference. The debut novel of Illawarra author Colin Dray, and shortlisted for the 2015 Vogel award,* Sign draws on tropes of the dangers lurking in the Australian outback but in this case the danger is travelling with the helpless victims, not lying in wait for them.  Sam and his little sister Katie have been lured into a transcontinental journey by their Aunt Dettie, ostensibly to meet up with his divorced parents, who (she says) are reuniting in Perth after their divorce.  But Aunt Dettie is a fervent believer in rigid social and moral mores as well as a person with a mental health problem, and she has persuaded the children on this ill-conceived journey without their mother’s knowledge because Joanne has started dating again.

So, the trio set out in the car from Sydney for forty-odd hours of driving across nearly 4000 kilometres of isolated Australian roads.  Set in some indeterminate time in the recent past — no mobile phones, no electric car windows or (yikes!) no air-conditioning, and none of the sharp-eyed grey nomads who are dawdling through the outback these days — the story is narrated from Sam’s point of view, a perspective both intimate and limited because the reader is quicker to identify the danger than Sam.

And Sam is mute.  He has had cancer, and an operation has left him without a voice.  So even when he does realise that he needs to call for help, he can’t do it.  The first few chapters set this up, dwelling IMO longer than they need to, on the way others treat him with a lack of empathy and on the details of the psychological and physical impact of his condition.  The novel also lingers over the way Sam is transformed into a listener, one who overhears bits of conversations he is not meant to hear, and how he is absorbed back into the family as a passive observer with only rudimentary communication skills such as frowns and shrugs.  (His mother unwisely has learned to depend on Aunt Dettie for the care of the children, and she does not demur when Dettie reports that a session with a speech therapist was a failure).

Aunt Dettie’s behaviour becomes increasingly erratic while the reader wonders why the police are so slow to track her down. She stops at roadhouses and petrol stations unchallenged.  Somewhere on the remote SA highway she switches number plates with another car, as if that would not alert authorities to the location of the woman who has kidnapped the children.  Perhaps the author does not know that in the days before mobile phones, the truckies and their CB radios were the conduit for news in the outback.

But that’s a minor quibble.  As the heat rises and the trio hurtles towards the threat of bushfires, the narrative tension increases.  Dettie’s irritable behaviour ratchets up and her inability to sleep makes her reckless on the road.  Katie rebels against her aunt’s bullying, and Sam’s anxiety festers into doubts about whether his careless father really does want them in his life. This last third of the book becomes unputdownable as disaster looms and Sam struggles to make his voice heard.  It’s a promising debut.

Check out the review at Theresa Smith Writes too.

*The 2015 Vogel was won by Murray Middleton for his short story collection When There’s Nowhere Else to Run.

Author: Colin Dray
Title: Sign
Publisher: Allen & Unwin, 2018, 339 pages
ISBN: 9781760294731
Source: Review copy courtesy of Allen & Unwin



  1. Thanks for the review mention Lisa.


  2. This is one I bought on my trip to Oz earlier in the year but haven’t gotten around to reading it. Your review makes me want to pick it up immediately. Do you think the time period might have been the 80s? I grew up without air conditioning, both at school and at home 😱


    • Hi Kim, I hope London has cooled down from the heat wave by now:)
      Yes, I think it could be the 1980s. The fact that the aunt drives, puts it in the 70s or 80s at least. I know women did drive before then (my mother drove lorries with the ATS in the war) but in my 1960s childhood she was a rarity among her friends. But by the 70s my mother’s friends were also starting to have their own cars.
      Another clue is the window winders in the car: the aunt’s car has no electric windows and I think my yellow Peugeot that I had in the middle 80s had electric windows. But I don’t think all cars had them.
      *chuckle* It must be a real problem for authors these days, when their plot requires a communication blackout!


  3. Love road stories, even if I am hypercritical. I remember the first car I was ever in with (retro-fitted) airconditioning, 1969, but I don’t remember when it became general, probably not till the 90s in cheaper cars, ditto with electric windows. I hope the author does the trip well, 4000 km takes you a long way (Sydney – Perth is about 3,800).


  4. *chuckle* I was only about 200 km out in my estimation!


    • Nearly 4,000 is good enough. For some reason I got it in my head that the aunt was just driving around- entirely my mistake!


      • Oh no, she was on a mission to get there fast. But #SpoilerAlert when she is somewhere on the Nullarbor (I think) there is a road block and she turns off the highway and then rejoins it. That, I thought, was a bit unlikely, because even if there are sideroads, (as your recent adventure taking a wrong turn shows) going off route can be perilous, especially in the desert. I’d have to get the book out and trawl through it to find exactly where this was to tell you exactly.


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