Fleur McDonald – Voices in the dark

Allen & Unwin, Australia, 2023
Cover design Nada Backovic
Cover images Shelly A Richmond; Arcangel; Ewen Bell

This is Fleur McDonald’s 22nd rural fiction novel. In it, along with the expected rural policing story led by the much loved Detective Dave, she delves into the challenges of parenting, various models of the family unit, parent-child relationships, issues of power imbalance – familial, professional and societal – and social mores to do with out of wedlock teenage pregnancy.

Fleur McDonald talks to Barbie about Voices in the dark

The story’s plot focus is on the family of Sassi Stapleton, brought up in Barker by her grandparents when her young unmarried birth mother, Amber, deserts her. Sassi’s questions about her childhood, her father and the reasons for the family schism remain unanswered, obscured by an apparent pall of shame.

The story opens with the death of Sassi’s beloved grandmother, Sassi having been injured in car accident whilst dashing home in an attempt to see her before she died.

This death results in a visit from Sassi’s mother who has been living pretty much out of touch in South Africa. Much of the story is absorbed with family politics and the run-off of estrangement.

Parallel stories tie the pieces of plot together with Dave and his estrangement from his daughters and his constable’s shared experiences with Sassi of being brought up by a grandmother.

Then there are questions about professional conduct and the expectations placed on rural police officers. Stresses occur when young Constable Mia steps out of professional guidelines and when Dave also finds himself acting out of character.

The rumbling underbed of violence is also paralleled in the domestic story of Amber and her father, Sassi’s grandfather, now needing extensive personal care due to ill health.

Added to these volatile ingredients is the tale of Rasha, a refugee who comes to work as Grandpa’s carer, and who suffers from more than just community suspicion and resentment of strangers and interlopers in her life in this country town.

All unravels and then knits together beautifully under the skilled hand of Fleur McDonald, who proves herself not just a consummate plot whisperer but also the creator of characters for whom readers care deeply. In keeping her story right up to date with current issues, the author allows easy entrée into these lives.

Whether it be the sheer drudgery of being a mother to young twin boys, the uncertainty of youthful love, the solidity and/or fragility of marriages and family relationships, Fleur McDonald has it nailed. She’s astute and compassionate, whilst equally able to write a tough and potentially graphically violent scene with a delicate enough hand not to have to spill every detail.

The legion of understandably rusted-on readers of this prolific and skilful storyteller will wait with impatience for the next chapter of Detective Dave’s life, assured though that he will carry on law-keeping in his generally gentle and benevolent way for many books to come.

He will no doubt be kept on track by his loving wife Kim, happily a woman not averse to telling him when he’s fallen off the rails.

Thank you to Allen & Unwin for my review copy and to Fleur for speaking with me about the changing nature of rural life, concepts of family, power imbalance and dear Detective Dave.