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Four Dogs Missing
Rhys Gard
(Echo Publishing, available now)

Four Dogs Missing is our Debut Spotlight for September! Read an interview with first-time author Rhys Gard here, plus watch an exclusive reading on our Instagram!

Rhys Gard’s debut, Four Dogs Missing, centres on a classic Hitchcock theme—the innocent man, falsely accused. When Oliver Wingfield’s estranged brother Theo arrives unannounced at his Mudgee winery, he creates a catalyst for a series of events (murders, art theft, the resurrection of long-buried family secrets) that make Oliver a prime suspect.

The story has all the hallmarks of a classic cat-and-mouse thriller. The enigmatic Oliver is ‘a rich city kid who’d blown into town’ and ostracised himself with his unorthodox thinking. Mere hours after ‘his doppelganger’ pulls his van into Oliver’s driveway, the winemaker discovers his wooden floorboards ‘covered in tacky little pools of maroon’. He has a corpse to contend with. It becomes clear to him that the only way he’ll stay out of prison is if he identifies the true murderer. But in doing so, those closest to Oliver find themselves in the crosshairs of a killer.

The how and the why behind Oliver’s dilemma—the escalating suspense as the death count mounts alongside the group of potential suspects—drives the narrative. But Gard’s novel is far more than a plot machine. He demonstrates a willingness to explore his characters beyond archetypal superficiality. Everyone is exquisitely rendered and emotionally complex, which makes determining friend from foe delightfully complicated for the reader.

Gard’s novel is far more than a plot machine. He demonstrates a willingness to explore his characters beyond archetypal superficiality.

The relationship at the centre of Four Dogs Missing is between the brothers. It has been ‘twenty years since they’d stolen cigarettes and snuck porn magazines into their bedroom; decades since they’d ridden their bikes up and down the street’. There was a time when they had been each other’s closest confidants and shared everything. ‘Then overnight, everything changed.’ Gard unpacks the nuances of their fractured bond with precision, revealing traumatic childhoods that are tethered to the events of the novel. The truth at the heart of Gard’s story is that you can’t run from your past; you’ll end up going in circles.

Although the climactic revelations are ultimately less shocking than they are gratifying, it is clear from the outset that Gard has all the instincts of a natural-born storyteller, on par with local grandmaster, Garry Disher. With prose stripped of affectation, and a terrific sense of locale, Gard’s first foray into the burgeoning landscape of Australian crime fiction hails the arrival of an impressive talent.

—Simon McDonald

John Morrissey 
(Text Publishing, available now)

First Nations literature is often shoehorned into magical realism, speculative fiction, ghost stories or, failing that, a neat catch-all category: ‘genre-defying’. These labels do no justice to John Morrissey. In his debut short fiction collection, Firelight, the Kalkadoon writer weaves together depictions of the real and unreal in a way that is effortlessly untethered by genre.

The tales are fundamentally strange. ‘Five Minutes’ is a multi-layered metafiction of a government worker writing an apocalyptic story featuring intergalactic centipedes. ‘The Rupture’ follows a team of veterinarians attempting to resurrect a thylacine. Themes of otherworldliness and the human capacity for cruelty run through the collection. At the centre of the collection is ‘Autoc’, a powerful story about curious green men that speaks to our desire—and fear—of creation myths.

It is a truly talented writer who can produce a collection that is both harrowing and exciting.

As a whole, Firelight is a mastery of craft. Each piece challenges narratives of colonialism with precision. Stories portray Indigenous characters from inside and outside perspectives—as observers and the observed—with a complexity that adds an incredible richness to the canon of Australian fiction. The writing is vivid and lush. Morrissey offers readers striking images such as ‘ghostly leaves squirming’ and a sky covered in a ‘luminous arabesque’. Nature, space and time are shown to be an embodiment of spirit:

Somewhere high above, past the atmosphere, beyond the Milky Way, my father was grinning, eyes ablaze like quasars, nebulae trailing around his hat brim—visible from every angle of the known universe.

Among this beauty of prose, there is also a destabilising force to every tale. Morrissey does not retreat from darkness. ‘The Last Penny’ depicts a sister’s memories of her brother, his twisted morality and how a violent history is slowly excavated from old letters. Morrissey describes an apparition of a small child speaking to the narrator with a clarity that suggests they can see right through organs and ‘the pulsing blood they swam in’. The children in these stories are often not pure nor innocent; they, like the adults, are vessels of mortal flaws and horror.

Morrissey has a rare gift in his ability to channel so much imagination with such brevity. Stories skip between moving visions of the universe to visceral images of death. It is a truly talented writer who can produce a collection that is both harrowing and exciting.

—Kathryn Gledhill-Tucker

Something Bad is Going to Happen
Jessie Stephens 
(PanMacmillan, available now)

In Australia, around one in five adults experience mental illness each year. Countless human stories are attached to this statistic. In her debut novel, Something Bad is Going to Happen, Jessie Stephens—a popular podcaster and the author of the bestselling non-fiction book Heartsick—captures a snapshot of this reality.

The protagonist, Adella, struggles to navigate life in her twenties. There are the relentless demands of work, completing a PhD and complicated relationships. Adella’s challenges are emblematic of those many of us face in modern life and are compounded by patriarchal expectations. (In one memorable scene, a man outside a pub tells her to ‘smile more’.) The novel chronicles the years leading up to Adella’s admission to a psychiatric unit, and the time she spends there.

The prose is vivid and heart-wrenchingly raw.

Stephens explores the impact of mental illness on both individuals and the people who love them. Adella’s mother has her own battles with depression, which Adella’s sister, Lottie, has ‘spent [her] whole life trying to avoid’. When Adella is caught in the ‘space […] between not wanting to live and not, entirely, wanting to die’, her mother, sister and friends do their best to support her, even as they are unable to ‘do anything but watch’.

The prose is vivid and heart-wrenchingly raw. Stephens articulates the alienation of a downward spiral: ‘[T]hat is what happens when we have been swallowed up, entirely, by our mind. There is no space for anyone else’. Though offering an important sense of realism, the progression of the plot, which concentrates on Adella’s decline, imbues the story with a bleakness that sometimes makes it difficult to keep reading.

The novel situates the story of Adella’s family within a broader societal context. Its characters are shaped as much by factors like gender and class as they are by individual choices. Adella finds the most comfort with people who recognise these precipitating factors, like her Pa, who’s been ‘depressed his whole life, although some periods were worse than others’.

However, Stephens suggests that a better future is possible. But it’s not the sanitised version many of us would like to believe in. Adella’s progress is slow, nonlinear and far from easy. As a nurse on the ward tells her, ‘You’ll get out the other side of this. But it won’t be through grit […] It will be through grace.’

Something Bad is Going to Happen is an outstanding step into fiction from a writer who has made a name from candid journalism. Through Adella, Stephens reminds us that though we may find ourselves in darkness, there can—eventually—be light.

—Laura Pettenuzzo