26 September 2023


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Reviewed by Rama Gaind.

By Kimberley Starr, Pantera Press, $32.99.

The devastation and heartache caused by the bushfires in Australia earlier this year is still too painful on recall. Poignant memories and stark images are resurrected with Torched.

It’s a volatile, haunting and an unreservedly convincing literary crime novel about mothers and sons and the bonds that bind them. Starr, an award-winning novelist and teacher, convincingly combines remorse and maternal love with the powerful impacts of a bushfire. It paints a glowing picture of solicitude along with the fear, rage and recovery of a small community under threat.

A bushfire has devastated a small Yarra Valley town, which leaves Reefton Primary School principal Phoebe Warton bereft of sleep. She’s the single mother of 18-year-old Caleb, who is accused of purposely starting the fire. Among the 12 dead are students from her school. Where was her son on that day and why is he not talking?

With community rage increasing, Phoebe sets out to clear the allegations against her son, only to be confronted with innumerable questions. She is forced to consider the nature of guilt and redemption, and decide what boundaries she is willing to cross to save her beloved son. The book compels you to address a burning question about whether someone you love could be so callous.

As this book went to print in January 2020, the award-winning novelist and teacher said, “Australia faces what feels like a neverending wave of firestorms threatening both country towns and major cities”.

“The evening news is filled with images of burning coasts and mountainsides, with dangers faced by firefighters, defence force members, and ordinary Australians desperately attempting to save their homes. Again and again witnesses try to express the scale of what they’ve experienced, trauma so huge it stretches the facilities of English to describe.”

“We’re seeing what happens if we treat Earth as though her health doesn’t matter.”

Starr presents an intimate story about the relationship between a parent and a child. “Family members, individuals who – like each individual reader – have to find a way to cope with the magnitude of the results of collective action and inaction. Every life is a story. Maybe something we say can encourage some change. Maybe those changes will add up to enough.”

According to Pantera Press publishing director Lex Hirst, “… Kimberley perfectly captures the achingly complex relationship between a mother and her son, along with the fear, rage and reactionary prejudice of a small community under threat”.

Can you tell us the name of the school in the Yarra Valley town that was devastated by a bushfire? If your answer is correct, then you could win one copy of Torched. Entries should be sent to [email protected] by Monday, 11 May 2020. Names of the winners will be announced in Frank Cassidy’s PS-sssst…! column on 12 May 2020.

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