I read this book over the Christmas holidays (it came out in 2008, from Allen & Unwin) and have been meaning to blog a short review of it ever since.
This extraordinary novel stands apart from so much current writing for its unsentimental representation of contemporary Australian life.
Pia Ricci, a kind of antiheroine in all her real human imperfection, has built a life for herself on returning to the mining town of Port Hedland, where she grew up before her parents’ separation. A life of sorts, running smoothly and efficiently, it appears at first, if repellently detached and self-enclosed.
What Pia unearths beneath the bloodwood tree of the book’s title is both real and symbolic, linking her (outside her conscious knowledge) to the novel’s two other main characters, the dying woman Maureen Barnes, and the Dutch nurse Joachim Kalma, in Australia on a temporary working visa.
The story alternates deftly between their viewpoints in the third person, in language that begins baldly, almost too sparsely, as if in broad, bright brushstrokes, before growing more specific and complex, yet remaining always highly readable.
Understatement is what helps build the novel’s tensions. If in some ways it might seem the book is crowded with topical “issues” (ranging from domestic violence through stalking through euthanasia to immigration, mining industry etc), each of these, whether foregrounded or left as troubling backdrop, is handled with a subtlety that means the book is not overloaded.
You won’t find an overt critique of, say, the greed that drives Australia’s primary industries, but its outline or shadow is arguably there not only in the portraits — for instance, of the repulsive Dick Barnes — but in the intimations of moral decay creeping up on all the book’s cast. It’s a compelling and very disturbing read that leaves you turning over notions of morality and ethics in the way you might after reading Camus or Highsmith. Both literary and accessible in the best senses of each term.