27 September 2023

This Wild, Wild Country

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Reviewed by Robert Goodman.

By Inga Vesper, Allen and Unwin, $32.99.

Inga Vesper’s debut novel The Long, Long Afternoon was a crime novel set in a perfect Los Angeles suburb in the 1950s. Vesper used that scenario to get beneath the façade of the perfect housewife and community of the time to reveal the racism, infidelity and drug use that sat beneath the surface. Her second novel This Wild, Wild Country, is not connected in terms of plot of character but feels like a companion piece, looking at the treatment of women in both the 1930s and the early 1970s.

The action of the novel takes place in a small American mountain town called Boldville. It opens in two time frames. In 1934, Cornelia is reflecting on how much she is hated by the townspeople. In 1970, hippie Glitter has brought her commune to live on some land behind her mother’s hotel in Boldville. One morning, after a party, her old friend Mike is found dead seemingly of a drug overdose. Glitter does not believe that story and may have had to let it go except for the presence of Joanna, an ex-policewoman hiding out in Boldville from her abusive husband, who can’t help but want to find the truth.

Vesper is instrested in contrasting the constraints that women were put under during the 1930s with the counterculture and what happens to women in an environment of “free love” and no boundaries. It turns out, things can be just as bad as Glitter is used, abused and gaslit by her boyfriend and the bikers he hangs out with. At the same time, Vesper explores the history and exploitation of the land – the dispossession of the indigenous people and the destruction of the landscape by mining.

This is a crime novel, and there is plenty of crime to go round, both in the 1970s and going back to Cornelia’s story in the 1930s. And the plot builds up to a tense finale. But once again, Vesper uses the tropes of the crime novel to look deeply at a range of issues that, while historical in the context of the novel are still very much with us today.

Over 850 more reviews can be found on Pile by the Bed.

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