When I first heard whisperings about this literary debut by musician Holly Throsby, I was excited to read the novel described as "the new Jasper Jones." As a lover of all things Jasper Jones – the novel, stage production and film adaptation – I had high hopes. However, while I really enjoyed Goodwood, it didn’t quite reach my expectations.
There are definite similarities: both are coming-of-age stories involving the mysterious disappearance of a teenage girl (although in the case of Goodwood, there are actually two missing people). The setting for each book is a small, rural Australian town, in a definite historical time period. Where Jasper Jones was set in the 1960s during the Vietnam War, Goodwood is set during the 1990s – so if you were a teenager in the 90s, you’ll understand the references to popular culture and current events, such as the NSW backpacker murders.
Goodwood is narrated from the viewpoint of 17-year old Jean Brown, a likeable and responsible girl with close family ties. The story opens with Jean relaying the disappearance of Rosie White, the coolest girl in town. Then, a week later, the popular town butcher, Bart McDonald, sets off on a fishing trip and never returns. Good-looking, with an attractive wife and a successful business, the townsfolk couldn't see any reason for him to leave town of his own accord. But there is no indication of foul play, and no body has been found. As far as the local policeman can see, there’s no apparent link between the two disappearances…but surely there must be some connection? Things like this just don’t happen in Goodwood – it’s a safe town, where everyone thinks they know everyone else. But not anymore.
Jean is a keen observer of people and their responses and interactions. She's part detective, part eavesdropper, and gradually puts together pieces of the puzzle involving the two disappearances...but she's also keeping a few secrets of her own.
Throsby’s language is simple and straightforward, befitting the age of her narrator. The story is laced with humour, and is a rich portrayal of life in a small town: there's an entertaining mix of stereotypical characters, together with the town's eccentrics. It’s an easy read, which draws you in right from the start, and I did feel a connection with Jean as the story progressed. But the vast number of characters makes the story unnecessarily confusing. In this way, it reminded me of Rosalie Ham’s The Dressmaker, where every person in the town is introduced, irrespective of whether or not their character is crucial to the plot.
Overall, I felt this book started off well: it was gripping, and a genuine page-turner. It had all the elements of a great mystery story, but it didn't quite come together as I'd hoped. I was satisfied with the ending though, and it kept me guessing almost to the last page. Without wanting to give too much away, Goodwood may have more of an impact on young adult readers.
If you're keen to read some best-selling Australian fiction, then my recommendation is to reach for Jane Harper's The Dry ahead of Goodwood. The books are similar in several ways, but I agreed that The Dry was the worthy winner of this year's Independent Booksellers award, ahead of shortlisted Goodwood.