When Eliza Carmody returns to the small seaside town she grew up in, some things have changed, and a lot hasn't. Often the way when you return to the small town of your youth. Carmody's changed a bit though, and this daughter of the local cop, now lawyer, is there as the legal representative of a large corporation, defending a bushfire class action bought by residents of Kinsale, after it was nearly wiped out in a massive bushfire.
On the way into town to meet up with an expert witness a road rage incident unfolds in front of her, rapidly spiralling into deadly assault, made even more shocking because the perpetrator turns out to be her childhood friend, Luke Tyrell. The victim is an Irish traveller, and the attack is shockingly quick, extremely violent, and cannot be excused by the trauma the bushfire had caused Tyrell. Right from this opening rush of action, Carmody is troubled. Representing the corporation being sued is enough to put her offside with the town, her own experiences growing up there had been difficult, and her family fractured enough already, to have her hypersensitive about perceptions on both sides.
That hypersensitivity in Clifford's hands translates elegantly into foreboding. As the narrative winds its way back through Carmody's childhood, and the present, the after-affects of the fire, and assault, right up until the discovery of an old skeleton, buried near the historic homestead, The Castle, Carmody is slightly out of kilter. She's dealing with changing life circumstances as her desire for career and success falters; and her best friend is happy, pregnant and content to remain in their home town, working as the local doctor. The sister she has a very fraught relationship with is also back, her brother-in-law now the local cop, and her father unresponsive after a car accident.
Back when she was a teenager, the night of a big party near The Castle, the night that some friendships were strained between a group of teenagers, whilst other relationships were strengthened, somebody disappeared. Nobody ever knew what had happened, now Carmody feels like she never did enough to find out why.
It's an interesting juxtaposition - the single-minded determined career woman, ambitious and focused; versus the young teenager, struggling with a tricky relationship with her father and sister, missing her dead mother desperately, confused and scattered enough to accept that one of her best friends can simply disappear into the night. The adult woman wondering what the teenage girl was thinking, slowly explaining it as her father and sister's recollections are revealed, and people all over town start to open up about what they know.
Clifford is working with a heap of themes here - small towns, inter-family tensions, buried secrets, things that a community collectively wants to forget, things that fester and grow and eat away. Upheaval is often what cracks some of these lightly held threads together, and a bushfire of the magnitude of the one that hit Kinsale is the perfect catalyst. It's shaken the foundations of the town, it's dragged somebody back into their orbit that's desperate enough to get to the bottom of past events that she's prepared to rock those foundations further, and she's a perfect character to do that. An insider who is also an outsider, fragile and crazy brave into the bargain.