By David Dent
Titan Books have been profiling some high class Australian writing talent in their recent publications. Soon is Lois Murphy’s first novel.
Nebulah is a town in the middle of nowhere, Australia. Once a prosperous mining and farming centre, its decline has been assisted by one thing: a nightly mist that descends on the area which, if caught in it, means certain death. Only a handful of residents still live there: most have either perished or moved away. Soon’s main voice is Pete, an ex-policeman who still can’t shake the force from his bones: the other remaining occupants are Milly, Li and Stick, and assorted dogs.
As the book opens Rolf, one of Pete’s neighbours, has taken his own life rather than suffer existing in the town any further. This precipitates discussion among the remainers about the possibility of leaving, but each of them finds a reason to stay – or more precisely, no particular impetus to leave. The mist itself is initially described sparingly. It seems to comprise voices and faces that have died, coming back to mock the living. Nebulah’s residents lock the doors every night and turn up their radios and TV sets to drown out the noise.
Murphy runs a risk here of losing the reading audience fairly early on, firstly by making the action in the book rather mundane; people go about their business, Paul visits his old cop friend Sean, Li tries to sell food she’s grown to supermarkets who have fallen on hard times and are closing their doors, and life generally limps on. The author also denies the reader any big set pieces. The description of the mist remains tantalisingly out of reach for most of the book, although when she does finally get to describe it and the effects it has – largely reflected through the arrival of a number of young people for whom Nebulah is a creepy tourist attraction – it is truly terrifying.
The residents of Nebulah are free to leave any time they want – and in fact they do, escaping to towns fairly near unencumbered by the mist, where they’re free to talk around at night. But these forays are mere holidays and Pete and his townsfolk seem determined to return and stick it out. Apparently the story was partly inspired by Wittenoom, the ill-fated West Australian asbestos town, which has been contaminated but which still houses three people, completely cut off from government services. I’m guessing that Murphy has also read Stephen King’s 1980 novella The Mist, adapted into a great movie by Frank Darabont in 2007.
Soon is a very bleak book. It requires quite a suspension of disbelief and at times it’s almost, dare I say it, boring? But that’s surely the author’s intention. With it’s well fleshed out characters, and a real sense of place and fractured community, it’s not a novel for everyone, but as Murphy’s first book, it’s quietly impressive.