by Lois Murphy
Publisher: Transit Lounge Publishing
An almost deserted town in the middle of nowhere, Nebulah’s days of mining and farming prosperity – if they ever truly existed – are long gone. These days even the name on the road sign into town has been removed. Yet for Pete, an ex-policeman, Milly, Li and a small band of others, it’s the only place they have ever felt at home.
One winter solstice the birds disappear. A strange, residual and mysterious mist arrives. It is a real and potent force, yet also emblematic of the complacency and unease that afflicts so many of our small towns, and the country that Murphy knows so well.
Partly inspired by the true story of Wittenoom, the ill-fated West Australian asbestos town, Soon is the story of the death of a haunted town, and the plight of the people who either won’t or simply can’t abandon all they have ever had. With finely wrought characters and brilliant storytelling, it is a taut and original novel, where the people we come to know and those who are drawn to the town’s intrigue must ultimately fight for survival.
Reviewer: Cheryl Fairclough
Soon is not a book to pick up at night or at the start of a busy day. It will suck you in with atmospheric tension and well-drawn conflicted characters – and not release you until the last shattering page.
At the heart of Soon is a macabre supernatural mystery. A malevolent death-dealing mist has come to descend every evening on the now ruined town of Nebulah. While the question of the ongoing physical survival of the novel’s main characters fuels the tension, what also keeps us gripped is their struggle for mental survival and the desperate hanging on to the last vestiges of community.
The supernatural mystery genre is not usually my thing, but this book won me over from beginning to end. Lois Murphy has crafted a well-rounded story, beautifully grounded in two realities.
Firstly, there is the poignant desperation of a decimated rural community with the last stragglers trapped by poverty, alcoholism, grief, a sense of failure, or a stoic refusal to leave a small piece of hard-won land. Murphy’s portrayal of a rag-tag group of hold-outs in a dead town (it has long since passed dying) draws us in to care about their fate. We become invested in the survival of the three main characters in particular – the narrator, Pete, an ex-cop who has failed as policeman, husband and father, and is desperately trying to keep from failing as a friend; grieving widow Milly; and stoic refugee market gardener Li. Their stubborn determination is laudable, but our sense of foreboding about their fate grows steadily throughout the book.
The second reality is the supernatural phenomenon of the mist. The mysterious circumstances of its arrival and the full extent of its impact are not revealed immediately. Rather, Murphy drip-feeds us snippets of backstory throughout the book via Pete’s reminiscences of the various harrowing incidents that have emptied the town. And each night there is tension in the constant race to be home before dark and a guarantee of destruction for any character who missteps. The significance of the title is revealed about halfway through the book and becomes another device to fuel the suspense.
In Soon Murphy depicts the supernatural as part of a consistent alternate reality. The mist operates with horrifying predictability throughout the book, always true to its over-riding intransigent purpose to lure and to kill. Murphy also introduces clairvoyants (real and dubious) into Nebulah, with results that are logically consistent and full of suspense. Throughout, Murphy succeeds in making supernatural horror a believable part of ‘normal’ reality in Nebulah. Even those readers who generally steer clear of this genre will be totally convinced and hooked.
Another underlying riff in the book is the attitude of state and federal governments to the town’s crisis. There is total denial that the problem even exists, despite the fact that local police and everyone close by in the region will no longer travel into the area in the danger hours. The town is simply wiped off the map (literally) to stop tourists, media and adventure hunters finding the road in. The publisher’s blurb mentions that Murphy was partly inspired by the true story of the asbestos mining town of Wittenoom in northern WA and it is easy to see the parallels.
Overall, Soon is a masterly portrayal of the disintegration of a small rural town and the people trapped within it by their own personal histories and issues. Through narrator Pete it is also the tale of the disintegration and attempt at survival of a man.
Murphy’s style is pitch perfect. Simple and accessible, fast-paced, intense and engaging; this book is a beautiful read. Murphy has produced a high quality literary thriller. It is not surprising that it won the Tasmanian Premier’s Prize for an Unpublished Manuscript.
If you enjoy the roller coaster ride of a well-written mystery thriller, I highly recommend Soon. Just don’t open it until you’ve got a few straight hours to spend engrossed in an alternative reality!