Set in New Zealand, written by an Australian author, POISON BAY by Belinda Pollard is one of those novels that you just can’t help but wonder what tourism authorities reaction would be...
Located in one of New Zealand’s most rugged and beautiful locations - Fiordland - the place and the circumstances combine to create some real menace for a group of high school friends on a trekking holiday that goes horribly wrong. Starting out with a flashback to the tragic death of one of their friends, the focus switches quickly to the current day and a reunion with a difference. A group of friends, who obviously haven’t seen each other for a long time, come together to be lead through the wilderness on a one off adventure by one of their number, long resident in the area.
Even before the group heads into the bush there’s a few odd things happening, but not enough, it seems to have caused too many alarms to go off, even though many of them obviously aren’t fit, prepared, or seemingly capable of the journey they are about to undertake. Readers will probably be ringing those alarm bells though, and the idea that many of the misgivings are parked behind the desire to resolve mixed personal feelings, felt instantly worrying / odd.
Seeing most things through the eyes of television journalist Callie Brown, there’s an interesting scenario building, with the potential of a switched on, observant narrator into the bargain. The idea that old friends, unsure of each other after all these years, in the wilderness and outside their comfort zones, relying on each other to get through is a chance to look at human nature in extreme circumstances. Unfortunately, there are some inconsistencies between that scenario and the actuality of their experience. The snippets of action and outcome are quickly subsumed by massive amounts of explanatory dialogue that take great care to spell out everything, regardless of how much should have been left to the reader's observation. There’s tension between the characters that’s nearly always resolved with some mea culpa statements, and yet more explanation and there’s too much overtly convenient partnerships / pairings off which quickly seem to telegraph potential twists. Then there are the things that some characters see which others “miss” and the way that the “good guys” step into each other’s orbit too quickly to be believable or trusted.
Meanwhile the sense of extremity and threat is there with the setting, in particular, providing a much heightened sense of risk and danger than any of the human components. Whilst there was a certain sense of inevitability about some of the early twists, once they arrived and the focus turned to how to survive against the landscape and the weather as well as the expected human threat, POISON BAY did become considerably more engaging. This was helped by the focus being switched from the group lost and in trouble, to those back at the small town they set out from, being forced by relatives to start the search. The confusion about how a group of friends under the guidance of an experienced and seemingly prepared guide could have gone missing, and how the possible truth is revealed was compelling and one of the highlights of the story.
First thriller novels are often filled with the highest of highs and some elements that just simply don’t hit the mark. The idea behind POISON BAY is in interesting one, and the use of the landscape as part of the overall threat beautifully done. Missing was a lack of a subtle touch, allowing the reader to observe, conclude and engage with the characters, without the need for hammered extrapolation, explanation and reiteration.