Grief and grit in central Queensland: The Man in the Water by David Burton
In the last few years, local fiction has yielded a rich harvest in impeccable outback noir, a genre about so much more than simply a central mystery. It’s literature that draws on the striking beauty and terror Dorothea Mackellar wrote about in her ode to this land of contrasts and devastation and glory, and it’s about the lives carved out in its less-populated spaces. In these stories, the land is both character, metaphor, and reflective surface, mirroring back all the complexities of human life in small communities.
This month, David Burton’s fiction debut The Man in the Water offers a young adult take on outback noir’s preoccupation with mystery, remoteness, isolation, and community. It opens with startling crispness: On the first day of Year 10, Shaun sees a dead body. Shaun rushes to the tiny two-officer police station to share what he has seen, but when the constable investigates further, the body has disappeared. The folk who live in this outback town built on the mining industry are not inclined to believe Shaun’s story; it sounds like the kind of tall tale a kid would invent to avoid punishment for wagging school. Plus, they think, Shaun is still messed up from the recent loss of his father. And Shaun’s mother, kind as she is, has to agree.
The pain of holding on to a truth that no one else believes is tangible in this story. Luckily for Shaun, his best friend Will is on his side, and the boys can’t let the mystery rest. They set about seeking answers of their own, and in the process uncover more than just the details surrounding a mysterious death. They are offered insight into a rumbling undercurrent of dissatisfaction and depression whose reach is far greater than they could have imagined.
Burton’s narrative does not waste words. There’s an immediacy and a sense of mingled hurt and hope that taps into themes of isolation, masculinity, family, mental illness, young adulthood, and first love. I anticipate this book not only being read and enjoyed by young adult audiences, but being incorporated into school curricula and book clubs around the country. It’s a thoughtful and rich addition to Australian YA’s excellent tradition.