Michael Burge – Tank Water

Midnight Sun Publishing, Australia, 2021
Cover design Kim Lock

This is a fine crime fiction novel (it happens to be a debut), one that has clearly sat with its author and matured as would a cellared wine.

The plot of this story springs from rural gay hate crimes and hence it is destined to be classified as LGBTQIA+ literature, as well as crime fiction. I’ve spoken in other places about my issues regarding the boxing of works into evolving genre conventions and I raise the same concerns here.

Barbie spoke to Michael Burge about Tank Water

 The themes of Tank Water traverse broad country and should not be limited by genre politics. The authentic gay voice in writing is significant and an equally significant advance in publishing policy. But let me urge readers to look at the almost Greek tragedy nature of this work, full of the pain of intimacy and loss, of the struggles of the conflicted soul, a study of the nature of family and love itself, a clear-eyed view of rural Australia and of the society we all create here.

We travel with protagonist James Brandt in two time frames, 1985 and 2005, both times in his rural home town of Kippen. His adolescent love for cousin Tony is sparked in 1985 during a visit back to the family farm with his mother, now resident in the city, for Tony’s wedding to Leanne.

It is also the catalyst for his need to investigate in the later time frame when he returns to Kippen after Tony’s death, purportedly a suicide caused by the stresses of Tony’s life. By this time Tony’s marriage to Leanne has long dissolved and Tony is leading a seemingly colourless life in Kippen.

It is the same darkness of his adolescence that James feels upon his return, despite his more mature years and his consciousness of the need to be accepted as gay in his family. This remains, however, unspoken in the family circle.

James’ father Daniel is a retired town cop and privy to knowledge of crimes he would prefer to keep under the carpet, influenced as one can imagine by local blokeism and matey pressure. Daniel’s own loneliness and grief at the loss of his wife and son through separation is palpable – and he is not without our sympathy, despite his dereliction of duty and failure to pursue justice until the eleventh hour.

This is a delicate and sensitive exploration of what it is to be a young gay man, a boy imprisoned by the need to be silent, to hide oneself in plain sight, to assure those closest to him that he is ‘not a poof’. The darkness that fills the story of this and other young men is painful for the reader.

We can but grieve for the losses whilst finding hope in James’ determination to seek justice for the wrongs of the past and in the inching change we see in his father at a time long before our nation moved forward. 2005 was well before the world we now see when marriage equality is enshrined in law.

Besides the depth of sorrow we feel in these pages, there is also a tale of high drama and action, increasing in tempo as the story reaches its point of no return. There are moments of breathless fear when we run with James from the real threat of death or serious injury. That he is afraid but continues is salutary.

The book is filmic thanks to the author’s highly graphic scene painting. The theme of water, the carrier of tragedy and finally of expiation, comes to fruition in the scene of resolution – we wait for it till the very end of this story, held by the author’s beautifully evoked tension.

Tank Water is a book for us all. In it we see the nature of family, all families in fact. We explore the enigma of family love and the influences of the wider world on the way we behave towards one another, both in the family unit and in the community at large. James is our present hero, Tony is the tragic hero whose story must be told and retold until society hears it and responds with the delivery of justice.

Thank you to Big Sky Publishing and The Book Cow for my review copy and Michael for such a fulsome and heartfelt conversation about this work. I look forward to the next.