- Torched, by Kimberley Starr. Panterra Press. $26.99.
There are times when the creation of art unintentionally foreshadows true events, in a way that is both eerie and telling.
Torched was conceived and written in the years following the Black Saturday fires in Victoria - but released in the aftermath of the 2019/20 bushfire crisis, the novel is terrifyingly real.
Based in the small town of Brunton in the Yarra Valley, the novel begins on the day of apocalyptic fires which wipe out huge swathes of the surrounding region and kill 10 people.
Phoebe Warton is desperately seeking her troubled teenage son, missing on the day. When Caleb finally reappears, he is unwilling to account for a 45-minute window of time - a period in which authorities claim he set the fire himself in an act of arson.
Disaffected and disconnected from society, Caleb is an easy scapegoat for the fires, which politicians are unwilling to link to climate change. But did he actually do it? Or is this a witch hunt?
Torched has a fascinating premise, and Starr writes with a haunting clarity of detail which makes the fires feel alarmingly real (perhaps made more effective due to the memories of this past year which seemed to linger on every page of the novel).
The desperation of a mother trying to protect her child, and the depiction of how communities can turn on each other during a crisis are brought to life vividly.
Unfortunately, despite this ability to draw the reader into the Brunton community, the characters themselves, Phoebe and Caleb, fail to feel fully developed.
The addition of strange details - Phoebe's secret collection of stolen artefacts from other people's lives, or Caleb's obsession with drawing his girlfriend as mythical creatures - are intriguing but unfulfilled. Instead of adding texture, these details and others feel like random elements that clash with the broader narrative of grief and crisis.
Torched is at times slow to catch the reader's attention, but at other times soars off the page. Starr writes the chaos and panic of the fires deftly, but this juxtaposes with the disjointed telling of the aftermath which detracts from the flow of the novel.
This is a difficult book to read with the fire season just behind us, and the next summer looming, but is worth the effort for the insight Starr offers into how our human natures can conflict with and trouble the experience of enduring environmental disaster.
The genre of climate/bushfire lit is growing, and Torched offers a unique scenario for the reader to grapple with while trying to understand human life in the context of climate disaster.
- Zoya Patel is the author of No Country Woman: A Memoir of Not Belonging.