Allen & Unwin, Australia, 2022
Cover design by Christabella Designs
Cover photographs: Getty Images/Andersen Ross
A Place Near Eden, the winner of the 2022 Australian Vogel Literary Award, is a clever psychological thriller, a work exploring truth, perception and family relationships.
It’s a disturbing and thoroughly absorbing read. The author plays with the reader so that we not only distrust our own judgments but everyone else’s.
Witness credibility, well understood in legal contexts, is the hold-all for this mystery and the author cunningly builds a story in which almost all narrators and viewpoints are dubious, clearly biased or constructed for selfish ends. There are no credible witnesses here.
Even Matilda, our chief storyteller, not only doubts the world around her, but also herself and her judgment, perspective and memory. This is very unsettling for the reader. Who can we trust if not our purported heroine?
Matilda’s account of the arrival into her family of Sem, a child her mother decides to foster, begins the process of clouded recall. We receive the images of the past like partial photographs or quick flashes of instance.
The sequence is disjointed and always punctuated by Matilda’s self-doubt. Her friend Celeste, on the other hand, is a picture of confidence, portrayed as manipulative and mercurial, controlling. Sem is a shadow, a boy and man who comes and goes, who flees and returns.
A dramatic event one evening at the beach house near Eden, where the two young women are housesitting, brings all of these relationships, and others woven around them, to a head. Sem, the constantly disappearing, seems to have disappeared permanently and is presumed dead. A question of criminal action arises.
Meanwhile Matilda’s erstwhile casual boyfriend reappears in the role of documentary film maker. His filmic investigation into Sem’s disappearance summarises some of the points of view we have been grappling with during the story. However, nothing is resolved – we are left to mull the evidence but cannot determine without reasonable doubt where the truth lies, or even if there is a single truth.
This is an intelligent piece of writing, assured and engrossing. Nell Pierce demonstrates a well-developed capacity to write tension, to paint atmosphere, to use silence and to purposely not explain what is intentionally mysterious – the temptation to resolve is enormous for all of us, no less for a writer, I am sure.
The author proves herself a mistress of the art of mystery writing, unafraid to step into the darkness. She is indeed a worthy recipient of the Vogel Literary Award.
Thank you to Allen & Unwin for my review copy and to Nell for spending time with me to discuss this intriguing work.