Erina Reddan – Deep in the Forest

Pantera Press, Australia, 2023
Cover design Elysia Clapin
Cover image Shutterstock/Shift Drive

What a clever author Erina Reddan is! Whilst this novel is an edge of the seat thriller, highly filmic and so visually graphic it could easily be a television drama series, it is also a beautiful literary work, rich in imagery and complex in its themes and motifs. It’s delicious reading.

Erina Reddan talks to Barbie about Deep in the Forest

The plot focusses on the workings of The Sanctuary, a drug rehabilitation centre in the small town of Stone Lake. Main character Charli Trentham is living in her family home but is traumatised by the recent death of her mother and by being wrongly blamed by the community for a devastating bushfire.

She’s an outsider in her own community and even in her own house (camping downstairs to avoid her mother’s rooms) and is desperate to escape to Italy to pursue her chosen career with a Master bookbinder.

It is Charli’s bookbinding craft that first brings her into close contact with the Sanctuary and its leaders when she is commissioned to make a fine art book to commemorate a significant anniversary. As events unfold and she becomes increasingly curious and disquieted by the closed community that is the Sanctuary, she reluctantly becomes involved in investigating its secrets.

She is running in the forest when she discovers the body of a newly born, frozen in the ice of the lake. She is deeply conflicted about whether or not to report it, knowing it will pull her once again into the clutches of the local law – history seems relentless here. And thus immediately here are the ice and the fire leitmotifs, which continue throughout – the opposites of passion and control, the notions of thaw and flame.

The centre is run by a strict religious group headed by Reverend Robert Hallaron and his offsider Zack. The ‘patients’ are predominantly young powerless women and it seems not many people come out of The Sanctuary once committed to it. However, it is strongly supported by community for the economic benefits it brings. And it is supported by powerful and rich donors including prominent politicians.

The imbalance of power is stark. It’s a major concern of the author.

Guilt is also dominating theme in this work – Charli is consumed with guilt over the death of her mother, believing she is responsible because her mother was walking down a treacherous road when she was run down by a supposed out of towner.

She was only there because the two had argued and her mum had left the car in which they were travelling together. The ongoing campaign by the local police officer, Sergeant Balaskas, to pursue her for starting the fire is added to the cauldron of grief and guilt.

Only when a new constable comes to town is an outsider’s view cast on the investigation of the fire and the death of the baby, and hence the overall workings of Stone Lake’s constabulary. Constable Karla Hofman comes with her own story of butting against male power and the male dominated structure of the police force. She proves her worth as the story evolves.

Happily for the reader, Charli is ably supported by her friend Amra whose refugee family treat her as their own. Not only is Amra another outsider, she is a stand-up comedian and hence brings some light into the darkness of Charli’s life and the story itself. She encourages Charli to be courageous and to continue to pursue truth in the face of opposition from the local community, entrenched power and influence.

Prominent lawyer and friend of her mother’s, Gigi, is also a stalwart on Charli’s team of strong women. There is courage to be found in the sisterhood, even in the darkest times of self-doubt and despair.

The author leads us to the denoument with a perfectly balanced bounce between the meticulous intensity of artisanal bookbinding and the high drama of the violent climax of the story. Even in the art she has chosen for her career, Charli is steeped in a world where male power and authority has prevailed.

That she eventually holds sway and takes that power, ably assisted by her doughty female support group, is a triumph well beyond survival and the simple unravelling of a mystery.

Coercive control is a long game, but the forces for the resolution of matters of power are equally as tenacious in this tale. It’s the melting of the ice and the celebration of the fire that leave us feeling exuberant (and relieved, if truth be told) by the end of this powerful work. In fiction at least, there is justice.

Thank you to Pantera Press for my review copy and to Erina for speaking with me about the many issues raised in this book and about the art and craft of writing.