Bay of Fires
Poppy Gee
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Buy *Bay of Fires* by Poppy Geeonline

Bay of Fires
Poppy Gee
Reagan Arthur Books
384 pages
March 2013
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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When thirty-something Sarah Avery returns for Christmas to her family home in the Bay of Fires, an isolated stretch of coastline on the east coast of Tasmania, neither her sister, Erica, nor her parents, John and Felicity, notice Sarah’s perpetual sadness. She tells them that boredom and “man troubles” had been the reason she quit her job at a Queensland fish farm. It’s a safe assumption to make considering that “sick, perverted and mental” were the names that her ex-boyfriend, Jake, shouted at her across the wet asphalt outside a local pub.

With a fragile shell, a bevy of raw memories, and an imposed exile from her "life up North,” Sarah finds herself set adrift with no particular inspiration to do anything apart from swim in the local rock pool and fish from the rocks on the pristine beach. Sarah is at first calmed by the “icing sugar white sand” and the tepid sea air laced with the salty garlic aroma of barbecuing seafood--and also by Roger Coker, who walks the isolated paths and keeps to himself, as much a fixture in the landscape as the granite boulders and scraggly banksias.

Sarah knows she must hide her secrets, positive of everyone’s disgust if they find out she messed around with seventeen-year-old Sam, the son of flirtatious American Simone Shelly. From the outset, there’s “a sour feeling of déjà vu,” a feeling not helped by angry, bitter Jane Taylor, who runs the guest house and lets her dogs go unleashed on the beach, and Pamela and Don Gun, who manage the corner store and are harbingers of all the local news. Tight-knit and insular, the residents of the Bay of Fires are all too willing to nourish intimate details of other people’s lives.

Photo courtesy author Poppy GeeSarah does not expect to recognize the corpse when Roger Coker tells her he’s found a girl dead, stabbed on the beach, the bloated body swollen with only her bikini bottoms remaining. The fact that Sarah told Swiss national Anja Traugott to take a hike up to the rock pool even when she knew it was full of fish guts adds to her sense of unease, pitting her against an isolation that is not as reassuring as she first imagined. With a serial killer perhaps on the loose, everyone begins to make assumptions. No one can quite believe it. Now there has been another murder on the same beach where local girl Chloe Crawford was last seen. Only sixteen years old, Chloe was ever found.

With trenchant observations on the state of Tasmanian politics and the far reach of the State’s rugged, beautiful wilderness, Gee leaves no stone unturned. The townsfolk begin to turn on each other in a suspicious dance of denial that will have consequences for Roger Coker, who is harassed to the point where it becomes life-threatening. All this changes when Launceston journalist Hall Flynn arrives at the Bay looking for a hot story. From the first moment that Hall breathes in the charcoal-clean scent of burnt bush, he finds himself seduced by this rugged, isolated, wild stretch of coast, and by Sarah, who recognizes Hall’s hollow yearning and loneliness.

Kindred spirits of sorts, Hall and Sarah join forces to solve the mystery with little evidence apart from the fact that Anja’s murder and Chloe’s missing-person investigation are impacting the lives of everyone on the Bay. Gee teases at Hall and Sarah’s encounter yet hints at the emptiness of both the young journalist and the wayward girl. She makes it easy to understand their isolation, and their need becomes a powerful metaphor for the wider Tasmanian wilderness, in which people often die and go missing: “What began as an island of murderous criminals is soon swallowed by the rugged unforgiving terrain.”

As a fellow Tasmanian, I was delighted to read Gee’s descriptions of my home state, insular as it is. Written with a lyrical beauty, there’s a lush tone to the novel. and a subtle message that invites the reader into this wild countryside. From the spiky dune grasses to the open ocean, to the tree-covered mountains sitting “humble and untouched beneath the big sky,” Gee ties Hall and Sarah’s love and loss to the enigmatic, desolate beauty and the gnawing emptiness that lies at the heart of this majestic landscape.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Michael Leonard, 2013

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