Brisbane author Kylie Kaden’s fifth novel After the Smoke Clears (Pantera Press 2023) is a page-turning and emotional mystery/drama/crime that showcases her development as an established writer who gets better with each book. I thoroughly enjoyed this intriguing story and found it difficult to put down!

The emotional and psychological drama of the story is the most affecting, with strong characterisations of the main protagonists, Lottie, August and six-year-old Otto. Kaden drew me immediately into each of their lives and I quickly became very invested in what was happening – or what might happen – to each of them.

The historical mystery or crime aspect is woven seamlessly into the narrative, not as the main focus as in a traditional crime book, but certainly as a theme which is central to the story.

Lottie is a smart, determined and feisty character who has moved away from her family’s life of privilege, politics and power to pursue her dreams of becoming a primary school teacher. She also has an ‘unsuitable’ love interest – a rough diamond of a man (August) who makes her feel safe. Their relationship is only just beginning, and complicated a little by the fact that they met through August’s son, Otto. But despite these and other obstacles (August and Otto live in a van!), they seem to be working it out. August is the strong and silent type and Lottie knows little about his history, but she doesn’t press the issue and is happy for their relationship to develop at its own pace.

That is, until August receives a mysterious phone call and leaves Otto in Lottie’s care in the middle of the night as he goes off on a mission that he is unable or unwilling to talk about with her. He assures her it’s only for a few days and hopes she will manage Otto without him until he can return.

But Lottie is not one to sit around and be dictated to. Incensed that he has up and left without an explanation, and understandably worried about what incident from his past has risen up to grab him back, she bundles Otto into her old car and embarks on a road trip to August’s old hometown. As the days pass, and she unravels more of the people and incidents of his past, it is apparent that his hometown hides decades of lies, and when a shocking crime is revealed, it appears that August may be a very different person to the man Lottie has come to know and love.

As Lottie unravels the truth, she must decide whether to trust this man or to fear the life he has apparently left behind, all while travelling with and protecting Otto, who is a cheerful, vulnerable and endearing companion.

Kaden’s writing is accessible and page-turning, with every chapter ending on a cliff edge that ensures you want to read on. With mostly alternating chapters from August and Lottie, interspersed with some from August’s perspective 10 years earlier, the novel captures the reader in a web of intrigue and mystery, with it never clear in which direction the story will go. Some aspects are a surprise to the reader, and some known to the reader but a surprise to the characters, but all of it adds up to a nail-biting drama.

The themes of this novel include parenting, class, socio-economic issues, family violence and abuse, institutionalised abuse, betrayal, loyalty and family dynamics, as well as a veiled insight into characters that are ‘othered’ or ‘different’, and their ignorant and unfortunate treatment 40 or 50 years ago. After the Smoke Clears has its share of sexy romance, red herrings and a whodunnit vibe, psychological exploration of guilt, shame and remorse, and a refreshing dash of humour and wit. There are also such great pop culture references to the 80’s and 90’s, which are sure to take readers of a certain age down memory lane. (AkkaDakka? Neighbours? Orchy bong, anyone?)

The ending is unexpected, satisfying and thought-provoking, and speaks to the historical and ripple effects of personal trauma.