Author: Mark Brandi
Published: June 27th 2017
Genres: Fiction, Crime, Mystery, Literary
Rating: 4.5 stars
In the long, hot summer of 1989, Ben and Fab are best friends.
Growing up in a small country town, they spend their days playing cricket, yabbying in local dams, wanting a pair of Nike Air Maxes and not talking about how Fab’s dad hits him or how the sudden death of Ben’s next-door neighbour unsettled him. Almost teenagers, they already know some things are better left unsaid.
Then a newcomer arrived in the Wimmera. Fab reckoned he was a secret agent and he and Ben staked him out. Up close, the man’s shoulders were wide and the veins in his arms stuck out, blue and green. His hands were enormous, red and knotty. He looked strong. Maybe even stronger than Fab’s dad. Neither realised the shadow this man would cast over both their lives.
Twenty years later, Fab is still stuck in town, going nowhere but hoping for somewhere better. Then a body is found in the river, and Fab can’t ignore the past any more.
Wimmera is a remarkable debut novel that highlights the power of boyhood friendship when a quiet tragedy occurs, the impact reverberating across the years. Mark Brandi, the debut author of Wimmera, applies a steady hand to his first novel. Rightly so, as Wimmera generated plenty of positive attention before it was published, taking out the Crime Writers Association Debut Dagger Award. This soon followed a publishing deal with Hachette Australia.
At the foundation of Wimmera is a coming of age tale that focuses on the strength of a bond forged between two adolescent boys, Ben and Fab. The long hot summer of 1989 changes the lives of best friends, Ben and Fab, forever. While partaking in their favoured activities of yabbying, BMX riding and cricket, a shocking incident occurs that shapes who these boys become. The appearance of a mysterious new neighbour from outside their small rural town of Stawell has the two boys intrigued. When the newcomer asks the boys, to do chores around his property, this follows an outing with the strange man. An incident then occurs that all three cannot take back. Moving forward twenty years later, Fab is going nowhere, stuck in the same place, with no prospects. When a body is recovered from local waters, the awful truth from that summer of 1989 comes bubbling back to the surface. It has repercussions for the two, who were once thick as thieves.
Wimmera is a well structured Australian debut crime novel that is divided into three acts. The narrative begins slowly as we are introduced to the two main characters of the novel Ben and Fab. We learn about their favourite pursuits, their differing family backgrounds, their problems at school and most of all we get a sense of their friendship. The pacing is a more of a plod in the early scenes of the novel as Brandi takes his time to set the stage for what is to come. This follows a build up to the tragedy that occurs, which tests each boy’s spirit and their bond as a whole. The book moves to the present day and is narrated by Fab, now an adult. We soon learn Fab is struck in a rut, unable to move forward with his life and he is still living at home, in the same town. The final act of the novel is a powerful examination of the fallout from the incident involving the boys in 1989. A compelling police interview and resulting court case is the culmination of a shocking decision made by the twosome twenty years ago.
Brandi’s characterisation is faultless. He strives hard in the early stages Wimmera to build a complete picture of his two main adolescent protagonists. We get a strong idea of how similar but different these two boys are. Their differences seem to lie in their contrasting family backgrounds. While Ben has a happy, safe and comfortable family life, Fab’s is tumultuous. Fab and his mother, Italian immigrants, live in a constant state of fear from his violent father. Brandi perfectly captures the attitudes, personality, interests and activities of these typical adolescent boys of the era, living in a rural community. Likewise, Brandi’s aptitude for character building extends to his crucial protagonist Ronnie. The stranger who changes Ben and Fab’s life over that summer of 1989, is balanced with enough mystique and mistrust that made me suspicious of this character from the very moment he appeared on the pages of Wimmera.
Thanks to the author of Wimmera, Mark Brandi, I took a trip down memory lane, to the year 1989, when a life changing event occurs in the lives of Ben and Fab. Although I was a few years younger than the main characters Ben and Fab in 1989, I still felt a significant sense of nostalgia while reading the first act of the narrative. Brandi encapsulates the time and place of his novel’s setting with ease. Brandi reminded me of the noteworthy influences of the time from popular television shows, celebrities, fashion and even the food choices of this defining era. It was this attention to detail that saw Brandi’s novel step a notch in my overall impression of the book. Likewise, I relished Brandi’s descriptions of the small country farming community in which the novel is based, Stawell. It was sprinkled with a touch of authenticity, which I believe would only come from having lived in this very same area. This was confirmed when I discovered an interview with Mark Brandi outlining his time in living in Wimmera with his parents, who restored an old pub. It is clear that Brandi has injected this first-hand experience into his first novel and it evidently works.
Very early on in the novel, we are privy to the fact that something profound happens to the two young boys in this novel and it isn’t positive. Brandi is almost a master of disguise, placing a complex shroud over the exact details of this event. He builds up to this event in a way that has the reader utterly drawn in, as he gently unfurls what is to come. When all is revealed it is shocking and I will issue a trigger warning if you are uncomfortable with the difficult but topical issues of child abuse, grooming and paedophile rings. I will commend Brandi on his handling of these onerous aspects of the narrative, he delicately handles these scenes with sensitivity. Brandi chooses to omit specifics to the abuse that occurred. Rather, the reader is left to their own devices to draw their own conclusions as to what occurred. Although this method of obscuring details to the abuse may not work for some readers, for me it was a warranted narrative choice.
The final act of Wimmera, which zones in on the police interview following the discovery of the body and the court case was realistic and compelling. The events come together neatly, in preparation for the conclusion, which struck a deep chord for this reader. I was utterly moved by this crime novel, in particular, the sheer ordinariness of the town and the two boys. It really could happen to anyone. Wimmera is a novel dosed with a strong injection of realism. The conditions that allowed this event to occur were of a time in our not too distant past and I know my own childhood, where we had more freedom than children today, the parenting perhaps more relaxed and abuse was rarely reported.
Mark Brandi has penned an Australian crime fiction novel that cuts right at the heart of Australian small town life. Wimmera examines the weight of an adolescent friendship, marked by an alarming incident that casts a shadow of darkness over the two main protagonists, Ben and Fab, for life. Wimmera reminds us how unexpected tragedies can occur in quite ordinary lives, paving the way for anguish, disturbance and ultimately retribution. A commanding debut novel, from a new voice in Australian fiction, particularly crime fiction that I would like to hear more from.
Wimmera by Mark Brandi was published on June 27th 2017 by Hachette. Details on how to purchase the book can be found here.
To learn more about the author of Wimmera, Mark Brandi, visit here.