Thursday, March 26, 2015

Review: POISON BAY by Belinda Pollard

POISON BAY by Belinda Pollard (Small Blue Dog, 2014)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

"The Maori call this place Ata Whenua-Shadow Land." Television reporter Callie Brown likes safe places with good coffee. But she joins friends from the past on a trek into New Zealand's most brutal wilderness, in the hope of healing a broken heart. What she doesn't know is that someone wants them all dead. Lost in every sense of the word, the hikers' primal instincts erupt. Surrounded by people who have harboured secrets for a decade, Callie must choose the right ally if she doesn't want to be the next to die... 

I was very intrigued by the idea behind Brisbane journalist Belinda Pollard's debut novel - a 'who's the unknown killer in the group' adventure thriller set in one of New Zealand's most ruggedly gorgeous national parks: Fiordland. A sort of And Then There Were None in the heart of majestic Lord of the Rings locations. So there was a lot of promise behind the premise, and setting.

Unfortunately, for me, the book only semi-delivered, falling short of what it could have been. At the beginning, I couldn't quite pick what was bothering me. The story starts with a historic day in Queensland, a group of high school friends witnessing a tragedy. Then it kicks forward to Callie Brown, one of those high schoolers but now a successful television journalist, contemplating a long-planned reunion of sorts with those same friends, many of whom she hasn't spoken to in years, in the wilds of southern New Zealand. She's not sure if she, and some of the others, can hack such an arduous adventure trip. Or if she wants to confront some of the longheld mixed feelings she has about some of the others in the party.

It's a good set-up for what could be a great thriller. As the story unfolded however, I found myself regularly pulled out of the tale by bouts of unnatural and over-expository dialogue. Things were laid out for the reader - and not in subtle or subtextual ways - in the characters' conversations. At other times long-simmering misunderstandings were neatly resolved with a few 'confess all' statements that just didn't seem to ring true. The author's hand was evident a lot, rather than things seeming to naturally unfold from the set-up and characters and storylines. Things felt a little 'on the nose' and forced - and subsequently a little 'thin'.

Despite being irritated by this, and other faults, I was intrigued by the story set-up, and Pollard created enough of a 'I want to know what happens' effect, a bit of narrative drive, that I found myself persevering and continuing to turn the pages. I was rewarded as the action picked up, and death(s) were visited upon our intrepid adventurers. There were also some nice descriptions of Fiordland, and ideas of how the wilderness, for all it's phenomenal beauty, can be a very tough and unforgiving place. As those left behind begin to worry about the missing hikers, and we cut between those in town and those in the bush, Pollard did a great job of keeping me hooked on what was happening. I wanted to know how it would turn out.

There are also some interesting themes that arise throughout the story, such as the nexus between media coverage and tragedies, the complications of childhood friendships and secrets withheld, and how we can be quick to (mis)judge those around us. Overall, POISON BAY was a pretty good read that I imagine many readers would enjoy, but for me I was left with a feeling that the pieces were there for something more, and another edit or partial rewrite could have polished it to something really great.


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