REVIEW

Karen Manton's The Curlew's Eye is a Gothic mystery set in Australia's Top End

  • The Curlew's Eye, by Karen Manton. Allen & Unwin, $32.99.

The title of this debut novel attracted me, since I grew up near a salt marsh estuary on the south coast of England, where the melancholic call of curlews on lonely winter evenings would haunt my imagination.

However, the curlew here is Australian, and the story - listed by its publisher as "a richly atmospheric Gothic mystery" - is set on a creepily neglected homestead in bushland near Darwin, still brooding over scars left from past tragedies.

Perhaps the "richly atmospheric" aspects are a little overplayed (the editorial role in publishing has sadly declined over recent years) but Manton's first step as a novelist is sure-footed.

Joel and Greta, together with their precociously articulate young sons, Toby, Raffy and Griffin, have left the south coast for a long road trip north, to Joel's old home, near Darwin.

The place is being sold as part of a development and Joel has agreed to help restore one of the old family dwellings before moving on again.

The story is told in first-person narrative from Greta's viewpoint, whose growing awareness of Joel's family skeletons, hidden in several hitherto unknown closets, forms a binding factor for the mystery.

As Greta explores the rambling property, which includes a lake poisoned by chemicals leaking from an old mine, and the rusting ruins of abandoned cars, glimpses of Joel's damaged family begin to sharpen.

These include the image of a young sister, who died in a terrible fire, never adequately explained.

And behind all this, the echoing scream of the bush curlew. "Harbinger of death, some people say," a local woman tells Greta. "Undid those first white settler women. Poor things."

And perhaps it will also undo Greta, as she tries to identify a wraith-like girl, apparently living rough in a landscape that quickly conceals her, as if it were a living accomplice.

However, Greta's struggle for answers is helped by memories of her own mother, with whom she shared a love of photography, and her three sons, wise beyond their years, as the path to resolution emerges

I must confess to feeling a little short-changed by what seemed like a tilt at magic realism as boulders breathe - and occasionally sing! - and the landscape appears to become a sentient force.

Are these inventions prompted by Greta's psychological distress?

Or merely the ingredients required for a truly "Gothic" thriller, where reception is a matter of personal taste.

In any event, I'm sure the mystery spun here will be enough to capture many readers.

This story Top End Gothic mystery, filled with eerie secrets first appeared on The Canberra Times.