Title: The Far-Back Country
Author: Kate Lyons
Published: July 1st 2018
Publisher: Allen & Unwin
Genres: Fiction, Contemporary
Rating: 4 stars
A superbly written and compelling novel about the bonds of family and home set against the outback landscape.In 1979, at the age of fourteen, Ray McCullough ran away from his home on a western New South Wales sheep property following a violent confrontation with his dad, Jim McCullough. He left behind his mother, Delly, and his sisters, Ursula and Tilda.
Now forty-one, Ray works as an itinerant cook and labourer across the remote outback. A practical man in love with history and landscape, Ray leads a solitary life, convinced he’s inherited Jim’s streak of violence. Ray has spent his life running away from memories of family and home.
When the body of a man is found in a country pub along with Ray’s identification, Ursula believes that she can finally lay to rest the search that has defined most of her adult life. After Ursula collects Ray’s belongings, she begins to follow the tracks left by Ray across the far-back country, each one leading her closer to understanding the man he became and why he disappeared all those years ago.
The Far-Back Country is an extraordinary story about memory, mistaken identity, false knowledge and how the idea of family can define us.
The Far-Back Country signals the third and latest novel released by Australian author Kate Lyons. As a big ambassador for Australian women writers, the fact that Kate Lyons has escaped my attention until now is regrettable. However, after reading The Far-Back Country, I plan to rectify with relationship with Ms Lyons and seek out her back list. The Far-Back Country is best defined as a remote based family drama and a resolute outback mystery novel, marked by stark prose.
Ray McCullough is one of two central players in The Far-Back Country. Ray is just a youth when he makes the decision to run away from his family’s remote sheep property, located in rural NSW. The pressures placed on Ray by his father means Ray has reached boiling point. He leaves behind both a mother and two sisters. Ray’s departure has a lasting impact on this fractured family unit. We learn as the years have gone by that Ray has become a drifter. He has floated in and out of various outback posts. Ray has lived a life of little connection, but he has a close affinity to the land. He still blames himself for his father’s treatment of him and wonders if this propensity towards violence is an in-built trait. Things come to a head for Ray and the family he left behind when the startling discovery of a body is made at a country pub. With Ray’s identification found with the body, Ray’s sister Ursula believes after years of searching for her brother, this might be the closure she is looking for. However, once Ursula collects Ray’s belongings she is compelled to follow his pathway, leading her to understand his final fate.
Outback based mystery novels with plenty of family politics are definitely the sort of books I gravitate towards. There seems to be a welcome addition of a number of books of this nature recently and is good to see Australian publishers getting on board. The Far-Back Country is a book that I appreciated for many reasons; the compelling narrative, intriguing mystery, family dynamics, extreme sense of place, sophisticated prose and most importantly, for my introduction to a new author.
The narrative base that defines The Far-Back Country is like a map of the outback. It is roving, not always linear, where segments intersect and overlap. It is an astute way to structure a novel and this format contributes to the mystery, as well as deviating atmosphere of the book. Alternating between time frame and character voices contributes to the overall enigma over the central question of Ray’s whereabouts/final fate. The reader is propelled to keep progressing with this novel as ultimately they want Ray and Ursula to reconnect. For me, this was quite the case with my experience of The Far-Back Country.
Lyons takes a commanding approach to her setting. Time and place seem to stand still within the pages of The Far-Back Country. Reading through the evocative pages of The Far-Back Country made me realise this is the closest I am going to get to fully appreciating and experiencing the harsh, but beautiful world of outback Australia. The passages relaying the inhospitable land that Ray finds himself drifting through and Ursula’s efforts in retracing her brother’s footsteps is simply spine tingling.
Characters and the dynamics that play out between the protagonists of The Far-Back Country are handled with precision by Kate Lyons. Ray is outlined with a strong brush of understanding, but also an aloofness that left me questioning his character many time over. Ray’s family, namely his sisters and his mother are also sketched well by Lyons. Ray’s cruel father is looming presence on the pages of this novel. Understanding the father figure of this tale gives us a greater sense of the importance of identity and early family interactions in shaping the person we become in future years. This is the resounding message that I took away from The Far-Back Country.
With themes of identity, belonging, loss, blame, disappointment, resentment and hope defining The Far-Back Country, this book places a strong emphasis on family disconnection. Conclusively, The Far-Back Country is literary based outback fiction title, with strong elements of intrigue and high family drama that I recommend with confidence.
The Far-Back Country by Kate Lyons was published on 1st July 2018 by Allen & Unwin. Details on how to purchase the book can be found here.
*I wish to thank Allen & Unwin for providing me with a free copy of this book for review purposes.
The Far-Back Country, is book #86 of the Australian Women Writers Challenge