Book Review: The Torrent by Dinuka McKenzie

The Torrent
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A loving husband lost to devastating summer floods. A teenage girl injured during a robbery. Two seemingly unconnected cases that will push a detective to the brink.

Do you have a favourite genre, or a preferred target age group when selecting books? I read everything from picture books to adult books and enjoy a range of genres. My main criteria nowadays is that it’s by an Australian author. I grew up reading a vast variety of books and nothing much has changed, except, (I realised as I devoured The Torrent by Dinuka McKenzie), it’s been many decades since I read crime fiction.

This latest read has reminded me of my teenage lust for Agatha Christie, when I would line up at the library to snaffle the latest addition, and my even earlier love of Trixie Beldon and Nancy Drew. Add my penchant for a (mild) crime/detective show (think Death in Paradise, Blue Heelers and Veronic Mars), and I have to wonder why I’ve left it so long to pick up one of the latest Australian rural crime novels. I guess I’m really a ‘whodunnit’ girl, but this book has opened my mind to reading more in this genre, especially when there’s a female detective.

Set in Northern New South Wales, with heavily pregnant Detective Sergeant Kate Miles just a week away from maternity leave, The Torrent opens with a violent hold-up at a local fast-food restaurant, which will reveal unsettling connections to Kate’s own past and lead to her final days on the job being anything but straightforward. When a second case is dumped on her lap, the closed case of man drowned in recent summer floods, what begins as a simple informal review quickly grows into something more complicated. Kate can either write the report that’s expected of her or investigate the case the way she wants to. As secrets and betrayals pile up, and the needs of her own family intervene, how far is Kate prepared to push to discover the truth?

The Torrent won the HarperCollins Australia 2020 Banjo Prize, while Dinuka’s unpublished manuscript Taken, was longlisted for the 2020 Richell Prize. One of the most compelling aspects of The Torrent is the main character, Kate, who is not only a female protagonist in a crime fiction, but a heavily pregnant one, who is also of Sri Lankan descent. She is a highly intelligent woman with an active mind and a deep sense of justice and empathy. There are occasional flashbacks and passages from other character’s point of view, but in the main the reader takes a journey with Kate, as she juggles the physical and emotional exhaustion of the last days of pregnancy, with her relationships with her husband and young son, her staff and superiors, her father, and the people she is investigating, desperate to tie everything up before she goes on maternity leave.

The two distinct crimes move stealthily towards each other, as Kate carefully unpicks the clues and challenges to reveal the truth. She is a flawed character, which makes her even more believable, grappling with conflicting emotions that tug her in various directions as she discovers each layer of what really happened in both crimes. Her relationship with her family and the urgency she feels to have everything sorted before she can step away and focus on her new baby, is evident on every page. She has a strong sense of justice and genuinely cares for the families embroiled in the crimes, which ultimately enables her to reveal the truth, but also puts her in danger.

The procedural aspects of the story are tight and realistic, which will satisfy readers of this genre, but more than that, this book will open your mind to considering the emotional and physical conflicts and challenges that women face when juggling pregnancy, motherhood, work, and all of the responsibilites in their lives, without losing a grip on who they are, what they want and what they need.

Having grown up in a small country town, I also connected strongly to the relationships between the characters in this fictional town, whose lives are woven back and forth across shared histories and tightly held secrets. The prose is clean and straightforward, which suits a procedural novel, but which also allows the potentially complicated plot to stay true to the end. The focus on Kate’s daily life and her internal world, allows the narrative to breathe and prevents the occasional jump from her head to other characters, from being jarring.

I couldn’t wait to get back to this book for my reading session each day in the car, beneath a tree, as I wait for my son at school pick-up. I was strongly bonded with Kate from the start of the story. Taken (also featuring Detective Sergeant Kate Miles) is set for a 2023 release and I look forward to seeing where she goes next.

Helen

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