When tragedy strikes it is hard to imagine ever living a normal life. SHELLEY BURR’s gripping new novel, Wake, focuses on the devastating long-term impact that crime has on the lives of its victims. KAREN WILLIAMS tells us more.
In the lead-up to the release of Wake the book had already won huge accolades and been nominated for, and even collected a number of awards, including the CWA Debut Dagger Award.
Shelly Burr began writing her novel on the first day of January 2018. Four years later when the final draft was polished and ready to go, the book was sent off by her agent to major publishers. Within days it was a hotly contested item resulting in lucrative Australian, UK and USA book deals. Shelley says it all happened so rapidly that it felt unbelievable. In a short space of time she was being billed as the newest talent in ‘Drought Noir’ or Australian rural crime writing, a popular genre that has seen the incredible success of authors such as Jane Harper and Chris Hammer.
Wake is evocative, brutal, and sometimes confronting. Set against the harsh Australian rural landscape it explores how catastrophic events in childhood can cause havoc with people’s lives. Its two main heroes harbour secrets and their own painful tragedies which are played out both publicly and privately. The plot is complex, tightly constructed and not only keeps you reading, but guessing, right up to the last page.
The story follows the unsolved case of Evelyn McCreery, an 11-year-old twin, who goes missing one night on an isolated rural property in central New South Wales. Nearly two decades later, Evelyn’s twin, Mina, is plagued by the twin emotions of guilt and grief. Guilt at being the surviving twin and intense grief for her loss. At 26 years old Mina is in a perpetual state of limbo not knowing what happened. Was Evelyn abducted and killed, as the police strongly suspected, or is there a possibility she is still alive, as her mother so fervently believed right up to the day she died.
Enter Lane Howard, a private investigator with an intriguing history, who has successfully solved a number of cases involving the disappearance of children. Lane is a likeable but down-on-his luck character. There is a tragic air around him. We learn that he dropped out of a promising career in the police academy many years ago. He is in Nannine chasing the million-dollar reward advertised for resolving Evelyn’s disappearance. If he’s successful, the money will be used to support his sister’s university education.
Burr weaves together many different subplots into the overall story: friendship and betrayal; mother-daughter relationships; and money as a strong motivating factor. There is also a thread of romance hinted at in the relationship between Lane and Mina.
‘In reality, people who are traumatised are often attracted to each other,’ says Shelley.
I wondered how someone so passionately interested in soil science, working as an Assistant Director in the Public Service in Canberra, ended up writing a literary crime novel.
‘Writing has always been a passion,’ Shelley tells me.
At seven or eight years old she was always ‘that kid with a notebook’ and she continued to write well into her teens to amuse herself and her friends. Back then, though, it was largely works of fantasy or romance that she wrote.
Wake, however, was the first novel she took seriously. But she didn’t set out to write a crime novel. Although she reads a lot of true crime, the novel isn’t drawn from one particular case. Inspiration came from researching and pulling details together from a lot of different missing cases. Her ‘eureka’ moment came when the central character appeared.
‘I was reading a lot of the online crime forums and I was struck by how people talked about crime victims and their families … I got the idea for Mina who was connected to a particular case and how tragedy can work havoc.
‘Mina is a twin whose sister goes missing. I am also a sole surviving child. I lost my brother when he died suddenly at 15. I was 12 years old. I didn’t realise until much later how much I drew from that well,’ Shelley says.
Along with her brother’s tragic death, that well was also filled up with other formative childhood experiences that make the writing in this book both strong and authentic. Her own family history goes back generations as farmers and, although she grew up in Newcastle, she spent a lot of time as a child on her grandparents’ farm, located outside of Glenrowan.
‘It was so remote. You were always conscious that you had to be more cautious with resources such as water or petrol, as they were precious commodities and you didn’t know when they might run out.’
There is always a strong element of risk when you are living in a place like outback Australia. And risk is a big factor that constantly comes up in Wake. The landscape continually poses a risk. Relationships are risky and at risk. And risk is at the heart of the choices the main characters make in the book.
What is that drives us to read crime fiction? Shelley Burr has a theory that readers are ultimately drawn to crime writing because there is a certain catharsis to it.
‘It appeals to those who very much like problem-solving. In a world filled with a lot of unresolvable problems, it can be incredibly satisfying to have everything resolved. It takes you down to a terrifying place but it brings you safely home.’
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Shelley Burr grew up on Newcastle’s beaches and her grandparents’ property in Glenrowan, and on the road between the two. When not writing, Shelley is working to establish a small permaculture farm and is studying agriculture at the University of New England, with a focus on soil science. She is an alumnus of the ACT Writers’ Hardcopy program (2018) and a Varuna fellow.
WAKE was a Top Five bestseller, won the CWA Debut Dagger Award in 2019, was shortlisted for the Indie Book Awards Debut Novel Award, the Kill Your Darlings Unpublished Manuscript Award and the Bath Novel Award. Shelley also won the ABIA’s 2023 Matt Richell Award for New Writer of the Year for WAKE.