Laura Elizabeth Woollett (lauraelizabethwoollett.com)
Paulina Novak is a “mainie”, a transplant from mainland Australia, trying to make a new life on small, idyllic Fairfolk Island. When Judy – Paulina’s mother – visits the island to celebrate her daughter’s 30th birthday, Paulina disappears. Judy isn’t particularly surprised, as their relationship has always been somewhat strained, but it isn’t long before Paulina’s body turns up, clearly the victim of murder. Fairfolk is a small community, and it didn’t take long for Paulina to get a reputation as a hard drinker with a series of disastrous relationships under her belt. Her penchant for walking alone means that every man on the island – and not a few scorned wives – is a suspect, and the closed nature of the community means it won’t be easy to find the truth about what happened to Paulina.
Just like grief, waiting had stages. And by two o’clock, Judy Novak was well and truly in the anger phase.
Thirty years old! And still bloody selfish. Well, whose fault is that?
As The Newcomer opens we are introduced to Judy Novak, a woman who has had the thankless task of raising her selfish daughter, Paulina, a young woman who seems intent on self-destruction by whatever means necessary. So it’s surprising when that first thought from the novel’s opening sentence comes back to haunt her, and her anger turns to grief when her daughter’s body is discovered; the depth of Judy’s grief shows the unconditional nature of her love for her daughter. Judy’s life has been changed irrevocably, a large part of her falling away into oblivion with the loss of Paulina.
Woollett tells the story of these two women and their strained relationship through a series of alternating chapters. Here we discover some backstory – the break-up of Paulina’s long-term relationship; packing in her well-paid job – and some insight into the mother-daughter dynamic that is in play here. Judy is attentive and concerned; Paulina, despite the fact that she is almost thirty, is like a petulant teenager, determined to do things her way, come hell or high water. We watch as she works her way through the island’s men, her need to seek solace at the bottom of a bottle ever-present. Paulina is, without a shadow of a doubt, damaged in some unknown and seemingly unfixable way. She is a difficult character to like, and so it’s surprising how engaging her story is and how well she works as the heart of the novel.
The Newcomer is an incidental crime novel: yes there is murder and mystery at its heart, but this is the story of Paulina Novak, and of the impact her untimely death has on the people she left behind, most noticeably her mother. The crime is solved, and the perpetrator locked up, by the novel’s halfway point, highlighting the fact that this was never meant to be a police procedural, or the next “outback noir”: it’s an examination of the effect crime can have on the victims and those around them. The nature of the location – a remote, sparsely-populated island that sees a supply ship once every few weeks – allows Woollett to examine the impact on the individual – Judy- and the wider community. Despite the fact that Paulina was a mainie, her outgoing nature and reputation leaves its mark on Fairfolk. Don’t be fooled, though: this is a rich, layered narrative that unfolds slowly, dropping suggestions along the way that leave the reader wondering, as they turn that final page, if they’ve imprisoned the wrong man.
With The Newcomer, Laura Elizabeth Woollett turns the crime novel on its head by putting the victim in the starring role, and giving the investigators what amounts to little more than a cameo appearance. It works well because of the interesting characters, and their inter-relationships. The Newcomer is beautifully written, the tension and conflict at odds with the seemingly idyllic surroundings. It’s a breath of fresh air in a genre that produces a new detective duo on a monthly basis and should appeal to anyone who likes good character-driven stories. It may be a little outside the comfort zone of the average crime fan – it certainly was for me – but I’m here to tell you that you should just take the risk; I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.