My rating: 4 of 5 stars
It is so exciting re-discovering how much I enjoy crime as a genre and better yet, discovering an eloquent and highly competent new author.
The Old School is PM Newton’s first novel, and I hope there will be many, many more. I’m not sure whether I hope that they will all contain Nhu “Ned” Kelly, but she is a well-drawn, nuanced character and deftly depicted by PM Newton. Ned is half-Viet (and half Irish, let’s not forget) and PM Newton writes the difficulties Ned has with her otherness well; we’re introduced to her as she bristles at jibes about her appearance: islander, Hong Kong chicky-babe; boat baby. Throughout, I found PM Newton did not make one step wrong in depicting Nhu or her sister Linh, and I was very impressed. Her careful, non-stereotypecast handling of the war in Viet Nam, Australia’s role and some of the characters’ role was also – here’s that word again – deft.
On other otherness fronts, PM Newton is also very good. She depicts the conflicts in indigenous politics well, clear-eyed but with compassion. Much better – and I’m sorry to make comparisons but how else do we make judgements? – than YA Erskine did in The Brotherhood. There are similar themes, too, in this book and YA Erskine (corruption in the police force, anyone?), outdated methods and philosophy, resistance to change, loyalty. She draws out the sexism and almost-every-other-ism in the police force, while also giving credit to (minimal, incremental, baby steps) change.
But where she does best is in relation to her musings about The Past, how it shapes the characters and what it means to excavate things long forgotten or purposefully hidden. And this is what The Old School is really about – yes there’s a murder (or rather, quite a few) and unsolved crimes – but what this novel is really about is our complicated relationship with the past, with our own history (and by our, I mean Australia’s as well as the individual characters) and the careful ways we construct our lives to mask or to emphasise aspects of our past.
Of the recent Australian crime (Temple, Erskine, Newton) I’ve been reading, I am impressed at how nuanced our stories are.
I look forward to PM Newton’s next. She is writing another, right?