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A Child's Book of True Crime
by Chloe Hooper
A Non-Review by J Stefan Cole

Chloe Hooper's first novel, A CHILD'S BOOK OF TRUE CRIME, Scribner, 2002, is a fine book with one problem: a hole where the ending should be. I mean hemorrhaging from the back. The book's fluidity, sense of place, the shear bravado of Hooper's writing are impressive. But I glanced ahead because I could see the pages were running out, I did a little finger measure of those remaining and thought, uh-oh.

Too much information was still floating loose. In anticipation, I began filling in the blanks: Kate Byrne, young fourth grade teacher in the outback Tasmanian town of Endport, will quit, return to the main land, get a Master's Degree in child psychology; a scarred woman, but wiser. Either that, or she will be done in. Murder became plausible once it was revealed that a fan belt and the brakes of Kate's old Mercedes had been tampered with, causing a near miss on a desolate road. Thomas Marne, the father of her precocious, favored student, Lucien, is Kate's lover; he and his wife, Veronica, become Kate's favorite candidates for crime.

She is a spirited teacher. I wish I'd had her for fourth grade. Her method is Socratic, querying her students on wide ranging topics like truth vs. lies, the "merits of hell," the reality of dreams. She is acutely analytical of their responses, seeing their world as a shadow one to the grown ups', a world of which Kate is a less than successful member. One has difficulty imagining Kate teaching reading, writing and arithmetic. A student, Anaminka, asks, "'But what if this is a dream, and when you dream it's not a dream? If in fact we are dreaming, then what are dreams?'" There is of course no answer, and Kate wonders about death, "What if children's terror of night and night monsters is just their connecting the dots between dreaming and death?"

Death figures throughout the book. Lucien's mom has just come out with a book, Murder At Black Swan Point, an expose rehashing the local murder of Ellie Siddell twenty years earlier, presumably at the hands of her lover's wife. Like Kate, Ellie Siddell had come to Endport fresh out of school, an innocent at nineteen. Big, pretty, naive, she spent her growing up in the protected environment of a girl's school, cloaked in middle class propriety among, "...girls with lovely upbringings who don't understand disaster." She had moved into her family's country home where horses needed tending to, Ellie being a natural with animals. Soon the local veterinarian, Graeme Harvey, a kindly fellow with three young daughters and a loving, well-off wife, offers her a job at his clinic. He is the sort of man no one would think twice about, what could be better for a budding young woman than the tutelage of this gentlemanly vet? But before long the good doctor is unbuttoning Ellie's blouse, teaching her the ways of the birdies and bees.

The evidence surrounding Ellie's murder is circumstantial. The authorities conclude Graeme's wife stabbed Ellie to death before presumably jumping off the coast at a place aptly named Suicide Cliffs. But her body was never recovered, and not everyone in town believes Margot Harvey did it, or that Graeme Harvey did not. Thus begin the many parallels in this book. Kate too has come to Endport fresh out of school, Teacher's College, and she too lives alone, in her deceased grandparent's beach house. Kate has taken the teaching job for a year while she decides what to do with the rest of her life. She is every bit as vulnerable as Ellie Siddell was, and she too is quickly seduced by an older man.

Thomas Marne is a lawyer, a domineering, impatient sort who bluntly tells Kate they are in the affair for the thrills. They role play; he lisps baby talk to Kate as he asks her lewd questions--has she been a good girl, have the students looked into her blouse... She removes her black underwear in his silver car as they speed down the highway toward a seaside hotel for lunch hour lust. Kate succumbs easily to the games and sex play. There is no intimacy. The eroticism is lush, Kate is not inhibited, with her childlike (at time childish) ways; she is unformed and pliable. Kate admits that she, "fell into adultery," but Thomas, it appears, planned the seduction, and he is in control.

Up pop a thousand questions about older men and young women, the documentation is endless. So why does Kate do it? We know what she imagines went on between Ellie and Graeme: that he made Ellie feel pretty and wanted, that he taught her all about fucking, "When they writhe, she'd think, We're two sticks trying to make fire." And about who she is with her lover in their forbidden pleasure: "Everyone should have one great secret to carry round as a talisman. Then when people look at you, thinking, she's like this, or she's only this, they'll always be wrong."

Even before the incident with her car, Kate had begun to obsess on Ellie and Graeme, she's read Veronica's account of the grisly killing and has some thoughts of her own on what really happened. A harrowing scene follows her near miss on the road; abandoning the car to get help, she walks miles in wild countryside that hugs the sea, where scary, inbred, barely civilized types populate random ranches. Yet Kate makes the analogy between herself and Ellie only when she feels her own life is in danger. Besides tampering with her car, someone has begun calling late at night, hanging up without a word. Kate believes Veronica, the lithe, sophisticated author, is making the calls, that she is on to her husband and Kate and that more foul play is in store. Kate wonders if Thomas and Veronica aren't working together.

Surrounding all this intrigue is a rich, textured landscape with a dark past. We learn, on a class trip, that Tasmania was Devil's Island, where the English sent criminals by the boatload. And not just wrong doers, but preachers of the good word were sent too, to see that prayer accompanied a brutal fate. Escape was nearly impossible, there was nowhere to go, even if sharks did not hover around the island. The beaches were littered with white oyster shells so escapees couldn't slip by in the dark, and, just in case, wild dogs patrolled the perimeters as a final terrifying back up. Some managed to break out though and they became the fabled, marauding burshrangers of Tasmanian lore. So Tasmania itself, settled by inmates, ministers and prostitutes, parallels this story of sex and crime.

And Kate's obsession is informed by yet another parallel, a wonderful device of having Ellie's murder "chronicled" by local animals. Thus, a Child's Book Of True Crime where talking animals shadow the world of humans. There are Kitty Koala, Terence Tiger, Wally Wambat and Kingsley Kookaburra. "'Wally,' said Terence, breathlessly. 'Whatever has happened?' 'Oh, dear!' sobbed the usually gruff wombat. 'Poor Ellie Siddell...' Terence raised an eyebrow. 'Well,' Wally murmured, slightly shamefaced, 'I guess you've heard about her torrid personal life?'" The fear these animals have of grown up humans, they also have for more vulnerable humans, like children and young women.

It is not surprising that Kate begins to unravel. Unfortunately, so does the book. It's a wonderfully engaging read that abruptly stops. I finally understood that vital bits of information are missing from the opening scenes with Kate and Thomas, on their lunch hour tryst. Something I think Ms Hooper thought was revealed is not. We get the idea that Kate has behaved badly with Thomas, and that that becomes the genesis of her problems. But I'm not sure what she did, annoyed him? Did she begin to dread the lies, the detached sex? I realized I didn't know enough about Kate to understand her, and therefore I couldn't get what happened. We best know Kate through her students, but this works more on the level of insightful themes rather than insight into character, so when Kate starts to unravel, though there is cause for fear and doubt, there is not sufficient emotional validity. The parts don't quite add up to a whole. We have Kate's sensuality, her vital curiosity (a trait that bounces between immaturity, and a refreshing freedom from stifling adult rules), but we don't really know who she is. The ending does not help.

I mean I literally do not know what happens. I read the last few pages three times thinking a book this rich can't just fall off a cliff. But it does. I forget which writer it was that said endings are hell.

©July 2002 J Stefan-Cole

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