The Good Daughter by Honey Brown made my list of Top 10 crime fiction by women in 2011. I read it in two days. I stayed home on a Friday night, eschewing TV and social media to finish it. Dark, malevolent, erotic and compelling, I could not put it down.
The ‘good daughter’ of the title is sixteen-year-old Rebecca Toyer, who lives in a flyblown rental property with her truckie stepfather and six dogs — the kind of place where ‘the shed is more impressive than the house’ and the dogs live in a caged carport.
Rebecca’s schoolmate and crush, Zach Kincaid, lives on a nearby property in a homestead, where even the birdbath is ‘scrubbed, pristine — no algae in the water, no slime or the presence of anything remotely organic.’
When Zach’s mother goes missing, Rebecca is implicated in her disappearance. Old enmities are exposed and new passions ignited as Rebecca and Zach are drawn into a dangerous and duplicitous adult world neither is prepared for. As the back cover blurb puts it, ‘Rebecca finds herself in danger of living up to the schoolyard taunts she so hates, while Zach channels his feelings through the sights of his gun.’
Brown writes with an insider’s knowledge of the terrain. Her small town Australia simmers with heat and aggression. It’s a place divided by class, shot through with sexual tension and hypocrisy.
Despite the dark subject matter, the writing is beautiful. But unlike Chris Womersley’s Bereft where I felt the gorgeous prose slowed the pace, The Good Daughter speeds along like a V8 Kingswood with a drunken teen behind the wheel trying to impress his mates.
Brown captures the intensity and angst of teenage infatuation, as well as both the discomfort and excitement of youthful sex. But it’s the misogyny and malevolence that left my heart in my throat.
Simmo comes across and climbs on the couch behind her. He stands on the cushions and takes hold of her shoulders. One of his knees presses against her back. He does some kind of suggestive act. She doesn’t turn and look; his groin would be at eye level. The boys laugh. Their gazes skate over her and settle more easily on Simmo. She sees how they admire the brazen way he touches her. They’d like to be as bold. Simmo climbs off the couch. She rubs her collarbones to erase his touch.
It’s a credit to the strength of the writing that scenes of sexual intimidation like this work alongside intimate and erotic sex scenes.
Some reviewers question whether The Good Daughter can be called a crime novel. Andrew Nette in his review Rural noir, for example, suggests the story has more in common with the literary canon of coming of age novels in rural Australia and only marginal engagement with the crime genre. Even Honey Brown herself, when we met on a panel at The Wheeler Centre, said she saw her novels more as psychological thrillers.
To my mind, it depends on how you think of crime. If you count sexual harassment and intimidation, The Good Daughter more than makes the grade.
Not that it matters. The Good Daughter is one of my fave reads in any genre in 2011. In fact, I’ll be doing a pre-recorded interview for The Book Show on Radio National just before Christmas when I’ll be giving The Good Daughter a plug, together with The Diggers Rest Hotel by Geoffrey McGeachin.
The Good Daughter is published by Penguin Viking. It was longlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award 2011, and shortlisted for the 2011 Barbara Jefferis Award.