Another great debut rural crime novel in an Australian setting, When One Of Us Hurts (Pan Macmillan 2023) by Monica Vuu is a story of an isolated coastal town, Port Brighton, where Outsiders are not welcome and Insiders are expected to behave a certain way. But when two deaths occur on the same night – a drunken, drowned teenager and a baby abandoned at the foot of the lighthouse – it is a lot even for the Insiders to deal with. And of course, the tragic news attracts the attention of the Outsiders, who want to uncover the truth.
The story is narrated by two women, Livvy and Marie. Livvy is an Insider who knows what to expect from her small town and keeps a close eye on everything going on, especially looking after her older brother, Johnny, who definitely has something broken or damaged about him. Marie no longer lives in Port Brighton but she can never forget the events that happened there years earlier, and how they irrevocably affected her life.
Are these characters reliable narrators? Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe partially. As with many psychological thrillers of this genre, I became confused with the number of characters and their relationship with each other, especially as the timeline jumped backwards and forwards. But perhaps that is the point of such writing: to turn the reader inside out and upside down, to confuse and mislead. The reader begins to wonder whether what they’ve read is true, or half-true, or a complete lie; to doubt where the truth begins and ends; to clutch at facts only to find them dissolve into water in their hands.
This is a book about a closed community full of eccentric and strange characters and as readers we never know who to believe. Intimate scenes leave us thinking in one direction, and then a dark tendril pulls us away into an unsettling knot of secrets. We may change our minds about some of the characters who appear obviously malign, or about some who gain our trust before dissembling into a madness we didn’t see coming. But if you don’t try too hard to follow every thread, but instead allow yourself to be woven into the complicated and menacing tapestry, you will be rewarded with a story that nobody could predict, with a surprising resolution.