Posted in Random Things Tours

When We Fall by Aoife Clifford

I’m slowly becoming a fan of ‘Outback Noir’ so I guess I picked up Aoife Clifford’s new novel with certain expectations. I was pleasantly surprised to find a few differences in this crime novel and a labyrinthine story that really pulls the reader into small town Australia with its complicated relationships. As one Merritt resident says:

“People here are a bit like trees, with roots deep in the earth, far more tangled than what’s visible on the surface.”

Criminal barrister Alex has returned to her home town to spend some time with her mother Denny and have one of those difficult conversations. Denny is struggling with dementia, but is stubborn and in denial. She had a distant relationship with her own parents and had Alex as a young Mum. Alex has bad memories of her grandparents so Merritt isn’t her favourite place, but Denny is getting worse, no matter how much she tries to cover it up and Alex must talk to her about sheltered accommodation. It’s on a beach walk trying to broach the subject that they find a dismembered leg with a distinctive black feather tattoo. It turns out that the leg belongs to art gallery owner Maxine MacFarlane and local police chief Kingsley ‘King’ Kelly dismisses it as a boating accident when the rest of her body is found further up the coast. But Alex’s barrister’s instincts tell her there might be more to this than meets the eye and she starts to snoop. King Kelly warns her off very early on and comes across as the archetypal small town cop – lazy, prejudiced and jaded, not to mention a misogynist. He holds court in his local cafe and seems well connected in the town, especially with people who matter. Alex wants to question a possible link between Maxine’s death and the disappearance of artist and activist Bella Gregg two years before. Not only did Bella exhibit at Maxine’s gallery, but as an activist she often protested wearing black feather wings that went missing at the same time she did. There’s also a strange symmetry about their autopsy results – Maxine was washed up on the sea shore but didn’t have saltwater in her lungs whereas Bella did have saltwater in her lungs but was found inland. There was also an upcoming exhibition at Maxine’s gallery, linked to Bella’s death. Could this have laid the blame for Bella’s death at a local’s door?

The plot is intriguing, full of different avenues that are never obvious. Some keep you reading ferociously but turn out to be red herrings, while truths lurk underneath like a riptide. One minute I suspected someone, then someone completely different, although that’s not surprising in a town where male suspects are plentiful. My eye was on King Kelly throughout because he’s a thoroughly unpleasant character, but there are strangers in town; a new doctor who’s just arrived, as well as a visiting investor in a potential eco-friendly extension of the town. Locally there’s the rep for the town extension who seems keen to do anything for a better future than the local fishermen he went to school with. Bella’s own stepfather is known to be dealing drugs and there’s even a link to Alex’s family, with one thread involving a GP who was the partner of her grandfather. The past definitely has a role here, both in the crime and in the questions Alex has about her childhood. I was nervous for her in a town where outspoken women seem to get silenced. Alex is just as stubborn as her mother once she has an idea in her head and she’s been without cases to distract her of late.

Aside from the crime, Alex has a lot to contend with: her husband Tom is pushing for their divorce to move a bit quicker; her career seems to have taken a nosedive since their separation; then there’s her formidable mother to contend with. I loved the snappish and often humorous dialogue between Alex and Denny. There was a lot of truth in their exchanges, but that humorous edge offered a bit of light in the shade of a terrible crime. Alex’s instincts are strong, she’s perceptive and intelligent but seems to have a blind spot when it comes to danger. She places herself in potentially life threatening situations without seeing the danger looming over her. I didn’t always understand why, but felt it might have had something to do with her childhood in Merritt. Clifford surprised me with Alex’s home town, because I didn’t get the dry outback setting I expected. Despite wanting to develop as a holiday destination, it didn’t feel very welcoming and it seems to be raining constantly. Everyone is in raincoats. This is a small seaside town and has a claustrophobic feel without the outback heat. She shows it through the people, like the local cop with a finger in every pie and suspicious residents who are reluctant to talk. She gave me an Australia I hadn’t seen before and it gave this read a unique feel. This was such a well-written book, sinister and complicated with an ending that felt just right. I’m now looking for a gap to read her earlier novels, because I’ve already ordered them.

Meet the Author

Aoife Clifford is the author of All These Perfect Strangers, which was long-listed for both
the Australian Industry General Fiction Book of the Year and the Voss Literary Prize, and Second Sight, a Publishers Weekly (starred review) and PW Pick for Book of the Week. Aoife’s short stories have been published in Australia, United Kingdom and the United States, winning premier prizes such as the Scarlet Stiletto and the S.D. Harvey Ned Kelly Award.


Hello, I am Hayley and I run Lotus Writing Therapy and The Lotus Readers blog. I am a counsellor, workshop facilitator and avid reader.

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