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Thursday, December 15, 2011

'The Good Daughter' by Honey Brown

From the BLURB:

Rebecca Toyer and Zach Kincaid each live on the outskirts of town, but come from very different sides of the tracks. When Zach's wealthy mother goes missing, Rebecca – the truckie's daughter – is implicated in her disappearance.

In the weeks that follow, Rebecca and Zach are drawn into a treacherous, adult world. Eager to please, Rebecca finds herself in danger of living up to the schoolyard taunts she so hates, while Zach channels his feelings through the sights of his gun.

In the fading summer light, grudges are nursed and tempers fray, and as old lies unravel it seems nobody can be relied on. But beyond the fallout, the hard lessons in love and betrayal have not been wasted. Rebecca and Zach realise that judgements can be flawed – and that trust is better earnt than given.

It begins in the backseats of a bus. Rebecca Toyer is the old cliché, girl from the wrong side of the tracks pining after her town’s prince, Zach Kincaid. Most of this little outback town is settled on Kincaid land, even the house where Rebecca and her stepfather, the truckie, live.

Rebecca’s mother started the Toyer women on bad reputations – town bicycle, easy pickings – and the slander has stuck to Rebecca even after her mother’s death. Try as he might, Zach Kincaid can’t get Rebecca out of his head – and their secret fumbling in the bus keep him thinking about her over the school holidays…

But pretty soon Zach has other things on his mind. He overhears a conversation between his mother and father, angry accusations and bitter words are exchanged as it comes to light that Ben Kincaid has been giving weekly payments to local restaurant owner, Kara Claas, and her son Aden. Her son, who is Ben’s illegitimate child and Zach’s older half-brother.

Joanne Kincaid is distraught by her husband’s admittance. Even if the child came before she and him started dating. Joanne is known about town as being a little bit flighty; prone to crying fits and quick to blame her manic mood swings on a creative mind.

When Rebecca comes across Joanne Kincaid, puffy-eyed and thick-tongued from crying, she offers her a lift into town, to the Claas restaurant. She watches Mrs Kincaid walk around the back, and then she waits… but Joanne doesn’t come back, and no one inside the restaurant claims to have seen her.

Suddenly Rebecca is the last person to have seen Zach’s mother alive. Aden Class, the gorgeous twenty-two-year-old bike-riding, pot-selling town bad boy is quick to comfort a shaken Rebecca as she sits with the police and recounts Joanne’s movements the day she went missing.

But something isn’t adding up. Zach’s father is adamant that Joanne is just off on one of her flighty fits. Zach starts wandering around the expansive Kincaid property with a rifle, looking for baby graves and sneaking along Rebecca’s property line, spying on her and Aden Claas as they grow closer and more intimate.

‘The Good Daughter’ was the 2010 contemporary mystery novel from Australian author, Honey Brown. The book was longlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award 2011, and shortlisted for the 2011 Barbara Jefferis Award.

This novel absolutely sucker-punched me. Brown’s writing is claustrophobic and disquieting, as she explores a small town mystery that is exacerbated by town politics, secrets and family fall-outs.

The story is told in third person, but focused on Rebecca and Zach. Through Rebecca we read about a misjudged sixteen-year-old who has already lived her fair share of tragedy. Her young half-sister died at the age of five, and her mother had a long, slow death from cancer not too long ago. Rebecca is the product of her mother’s reputation – she doesn’t know who her biological father is, and everyone assumes she’s as loose as her mother once was.

Rebecca becomes unwittingly caught up in Joanne Kincaid’s disappearance when she is the last person to see or speak to her, alive. But Rebecca is slowly let in on the town secret – that the restaurant where she dropped Mrs Kincaid off is owned by the woman who her husband has been paying child-support to, and Joanne is not a stable woman at the best of times. Rebecca is snared in this small town secret when twenty-two-year-old local Lothario, Aden Claas, explains the faux-pas she has unwittingly let loose by calling the police about Joanne’s disappearance.

What comes next is a rapid slide into adulthood as Aden turns his amorous intentions on Rebecca. Caught up in the drama of the police investigations, Rebecca succumbs to Aden’s well-worn charms, hardly dissuaded by the age gap between them, or the fact that a day ago she was harbouring similar feelings for his younger half-brother, Zach.

As Rebecca’s story unfolds, we read about it through Zach’s eyes as he trains his rifle on Aden from the bushes surrounding the Toyer property. Zach watches with envy and jealousy as his bastard brother steals Rebecca off her feet. But Zach is also watching the other people in town, people seemingly disinterested in his mother’s disappearance. There’s Nigel, Aden’s best friend whose alibi for the night Joanne went missing is that he was ‘with’ Rebecca and Aden. Luke Redman, a local boy turned cop, who is still somewhat plagued by his reckless youth that doesn’t exactly translate well into a position of authority now. And Zach’s father, who is hell-bent on not searching for Joanne and keeping her away from Zach when, or if, she does resurface.

Honey Brown weaves a tangled web indeed. Her characters become mired in suspicions and guilt by the connections they establish. Within the first few chapters Rebecca has swung from Zach to Aden, and her interest in both boys look suspect. Even more eyebrow-raising is Aden’s sudden intense (and illegal) interest in Rebecca, the girl who is also conveniently the only witness to have last seen Mrs Kincaid

There is certainly a lot going on in this novel, and no one is as they seem. Brown writes Aden in shades of grey – so charming and sexy in one scene, so that you almost forget his twenty-two to Rebecca’s naïve sixteen is both wrong, and possibly calculating. Brown writes about small town corruption with a Raymond Chandler eye, particularly in her explorations of crooked cops (borne more from them being local boys who already knew the lay of the land, than an inclination to dishonesty in the general police force). She definitely writes outback noir;

Police do nothing to build a person’s confidence in them. They seem so civilian. What from a distance looks good, someone she might trust and confide in, up close looks too much like men with food crumbs on their chests, nicks from shaving, ugly mouths and bad breath. Taking her statement seems a chore they have to get done so as to get back to bitching in corridors.

Honey Brown is also exploring quite a few devious themes in ‘The Good Daughter’. One recurring and disturbing examination is that of pack behaviour, particularly men and their pack-like antics. Rebecca keeps a litter of six dogs on her property; these mutts and mongrels yap and snarl, turn on one another and enjoy pack hierarchy … just like the men in town. One particular scene involves Rebecca being cornered in a house full of young male tenants, drunk and showing off for one another and when Rebecca (the town ‘slut’) is thrown into the mix, their one-upmanship takes a harrowing turn. This scene is every girl’s worst nightmare, and reading it was like having someone fisting my heart for an entire chapter.

The small town is so remote, like a country unto itself, that it wasn’t until halfway through the novel when a character’s birth date is mentioned, that Brown even reveals that the book is set in 1986. Small towns just seem to be a step out of time, so much so that I thought it was a given the backwards nature of the policing and technological advances. And Brown really plays that up in ‘The Good Daughter’ – that everything is dictated by the history of this town. People have long memories in small towns, they rarely let people break out of the boxes they were originally put in, and town gossip can have a vicious backlash;

His gaze tightens. His tone grows firm. ‘You might be surprised, Rebecca, at how cops in a small town aren’t always about throwing the book at people. We do try and help.’
His eyebrows pinch in. ‘Sure?’ He glances up at the two dining on the veranda. He returns his gaze to her. ‘If we don’t charge somebody for something, or if we let something go, it’s because we know what’s really going on.’ He continues quietly, ‘You should have a little more respect for the system.’ His voice drops to a whisper. ‘I could help you, but you make it hard on yourself. I could tell you what’s going on, but it’s like you don’t want to know. Everyone’s got the backing of someone else in this town, but you’ve got the backing of no-one – you’ve got no-one behind you.’

‘The Good Daughter’ is an incredible and frenetic novel. Following the lives of two sixteen-year-olds from opposites sides of the track as one event inextricably links them, and forces them into adulthood. This is a disquieting novel, beautifully told. Zach and Rebecca are two innocent’s in a town of old memories, and reading about their near-misses and awful discoveries made me want to bundle them in blankets and keep them safe, just for a little bit longer. Fantastic. I can’t wait to get my hands on more of Honey Brown’s books!


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