“Goodwood was a peaceful town before the tragedies,” the teenage narrator, Jean, reflects on her town in 1992. Those tragedies involve twin disappearances. First, Rosie vanishes, a girl who is a year older than Jean and cool and inscrutable in the way only sad girls are. Soon after, beloved butcher and councillor Bart McDonald goes out fishing and doesn’t come back.
Jean thinks she has some stumbled on a pivotal clue when she finds a stash of money in a local hiding hole. The plot thickens when the cash is enigmatically replaced by a small plastic horse. She records these events in her notebook, along with theories and impressions of the increasingly mournful community.
It emerges that one of Bart’s cars also disappeared shortly before Rosie was last seen, a development that Bart was alarmingly unconcerned by. Gossip around the small town soon turns to the possibility that their disappearances were linked.
As darker mutterings begin to swirl, there are a couple too many scenes of the townsfolk recounting what they know, which at this stage is very little. But just as the narrative appears to be drifting, it kicks into gear brilliantly. Before too long, it has developed into the kind of big-hearted, emotionally bruising story that reminds you why you love fiction.
More and more of the townsfolk become caught up in the events: Carl White, a violent, pokie-addicted burnout; Kevin, a widowed dairy farmer, and Davo, Rosie’s rebellious boyfriend. Yet others hover on the periphery, touched by the fallout and the creeping paranoia: Edna, forever ready to report an “outrage”, various gossipy women, bogan men and runty kids and most memorably, the tragicomic busybody Fitzy, a woman convinced the Bureau of Meteorology is shafting the town.
This motley cast is watched over by a sensitive, complex and eminently huggable narrator in Jean, who begins the story as a mostly passive presence, observing the goings-on with her sardonic, tomboyish friend George and faithful dog Backflip before becoming a slightly bolder figure involved in the ailing town’s collective anguish. She even experiences Goodwood’s version of feverish courtship, when the lanky Ethan invites her to “go see the cows” with him.
There may be more promising dalliances afoot; she notices Evie, a beautiful new girl at the school and gradually their paths cross in one of the most minimally sketched but memorable romances in recent memory. It’s an almost wordless seduction, two comets of lust and excitement on a collision path on the fringes of the town.
Fashioned with gentle humour, sharply observed detail and deep reservoirs of well-directed rage, the story has so many moving parts you could easily miss something as subtle and brilliant as the elegant symmetries that cast a new light on Jean’s narration. Where other books have clunky revelations, this has grace notes.
There is some of Tim Winton in Goodwood’s DNA, that wry affection for a peculiarly Australian dagginess and the rhythms and rituals of small-town life. Everything is observed with equal parts poetry and realism: the social life that revolves around the CWA and the town’s twin pubs, the unintentional kitsch of a fishing parade, the banter over the counter at Bart’s butcher shop and the reverence towards his geniality and decency.
The debut novel of Holly Throsby, also a noted singer-songwriter, Goodwood is many things: a satisfying and conscientiously constructed mystery, an affectionate but clear-eyed portrait of a time and place, and a darkly lovely coming of age story. But most of all, it’s a complete revelation, the conjuring up of a sad, beautiful, indelible little world of its own.