Author Ruby Murray. Photo: Kristian Scott
Ruby J. Murray
Too many Australian debuts read like novellas kitted up in chunky dress to pad out the word limit and justify a $20-plus price tag. It's rare to encounter one that deserves to be longer. That's the sense left by Ruby J. Murray's first outing, though - an uneven but rewarding drama whose only proper let-down is in its hasty wrap-up.
The narrative is split into two timelines. The first follows Diana, a twentysomething Australian expat trying to integrate herself into the dynamic, confronting culture of contemporary Jakarta. She works for a disaster-relief program of dubious integrity, but her unacknowledged reason for relocating is tied up with Petra Jordan, the dazzling Indonesian socialite who upended her life years ago before disappearing without a trace.
The novel's second strand takes us back to Petra's childhood and the troubled clan from which she emerged. Along with her young brothers Isaak and Paul, Petra inhabits a clandestine world of ritual and resistance, working bitter magic to stave off a truly vile bully and engaging in unvoiced struggles against two tyrannical parents.
That the Jordan family as a whole has built an obscene empire by corrupting and exploiting the local populace only gradually reveals itself as the natural corollary of the silent violence waged within the walled compound of their domestic world.
Running Dogs is very much a novel about interiors and exteriors, public faces and private shames. Its most compelling sequences, accordingly, are those that open up the complex inner realms of the fascinating young trio. Murray possesses an astute ability to burrow into the contradictions of childhood - Petra's parents are monsters, but being family she can only observe her situation from within, not quite understanding how anything could be different. This makes more real the children's skewed attempts at change, indulging in arcane acts whose effects are as plausible as they are strange.
Diana's narrative can be less gripping - as an outsider, she is frequently barred from more than a glimpse beneath the mask of Indonesian society. When she does uncover uncomfortable truths it is slowly, partially. In contrast to the Jordan family chapters, hers lack density. Seen through her eyes, the now-adult Jordan siblings remain cyphers, and we're no longer afforded the key to decoding their intense self-involvement.
But Murray knows her way around a sentence and keeps interest from flagging. Diana worries about "making a Schapelle of herself". The martinet Jordan patriarch rarely expresses emotion, his face "a bowl which other people at the table are trying to fill".
The writer has spent time in Indonesia and it shows. This isn't guidebook writing, throwing out exotic detail in place of a real understanding of a culture. The only exception lies in the all-too-common practice of tossing in paragraph-length lists of local cuisine as if scanning a menu is itself a moment of cross-cultural significance. But it's clear that Murray has a love-hate relationship with the place, illustrating its seductive side while keeping its ugly underbelly never far from view.
The dangerous role of foreigners, well-meaning and otherwise, is also given convincing expression.
After all of this, the novel's resolution comes too quickly and falls back on familiar devices - revelations, confrontations, a death or two to tie up outstanding problems. There are answers to riddles that are more effective left unsolved.
But it's a shortcoming that shouldn't deter readers and is only a criticism due to the accomplishments that precede it. Murray is more than just one to watch - she's one to read, right now.