Miles Franklin shortlisted author Philip Salom’s latest novel The Fifth Season (Transit Lounge 2020) features his trademark literary style, a deep dive into the nuances of his characters and an existential examination of their motivations and behaviour. Salom’s writing is highly literary and at times quite beautiful and profound.

While there is a plot, he focuses more on the interactions of the characters and their internal musings about what life is about, why they are here, what is the purpose of their existence and how they are best placed to achieve their potential, whatever fate that may be.

In The Fifth Season, we meet Jack who has retreated to an Airbnb cottage in a small coastal town, ostensibly to write, but also to engage in his passion for ‘found people’. As opposed to those merely missing, which is a tragic but different issue, ‘found people’ are those rare individuals that are found dead with ‘their identities unknown or erased’; mysterious events that haunt the places these people are found, often for years afterwards. Jack befriends Sarah, whose sister Alice went missing several years earlier. Sarah paints huge murals of the faces of those missing onto public walls and bridges and the sides of silos. Jack becomes enmeshed with the strange people of the close-knit town and discovers a book written by a man called Simon who once lived in the same cottage, and decorated the entire backyard with gaudy and crazy mosaic tile work, and who is himself now missing.

Jack’s health is ambiguous throughout the novel and the reader begins to wonder whether he has come to Blue Bay to write, or to die.

While there is a lot to love about this book, it was not really what I was expecting. I supposed I anticipated it would be more about the missing, and the unusual cases of the ‘found people’, but it was less about that and more about the whole theme of grief and loss, the ‘tenuousness of life’, the relationships people build to connect, even when they are strangers, and the often strange intersections they find in common with which to connect.

I found I didn’t really care enough about these characters to keep the book engaging for me; I lost interest in what happened to them, and that was a shame, because Salom is a compelling writer, and it is easy to get lost in his beautifully rendered sentences.