Paulina moves to Fairfolk Island to chase a version of happily ever after that she’s been led to believe she doesn’t deserve. She’s running away from heartbreak, and to escape the restless anxiety that plagues her. But the idyllic honeymooner’s paradise doesn’t turn out to be a happily ever after at all: there, she’s a “mainie”, a disposable outsider on minimum wage who struggles to find her place in the island’s tight-knit community. She does all the “wrong” things – she walks the island alone at night, she’s promiscuous, drinks a lot, and plays fast and loose with the loyalty of her female friends. Paulina is challenging, and difficult to like. So when she is murdered, her mother, Judy, is one of the few people willing to fight for answers.
Paulina is the central character in The Newcomer, Laura Elizabeth Woollett’s third book, following her critically acclaimed short story collection, The Love of a Bad Man, and Beautiful Revolutionary, a novel about the Peoples Temple and the cult of Jim Jones.
This deftly constructed story explores themes of power and the way we perceive victims, weaving together the dual narrative strands of the months before and after Paulina’s death. In one, Paulina is messy and full of life, trying to find her feet on the island. In the other, Judy is fixated on understanding why her daughter died, and who is responsible. These alternating threads make the absence of Paulina herself viscerally felt – the chapters that take place after her death echo silence in contrast to those in which she is alive.
Woollett manipulates the structure of the crime novel, the suspense of the whodunnit, to destabilise the idea that there is ever one perpetrator of a crime. She cleverly intertwines before and after timelines to highlight all the ways that Paulina is a victim of violence against women before she becomes one in a way that actually warrants legal attention. The question that Woollett asks here – that she suggests we should all be asking – is what makes a system so broken that it requires the bodies of women in order to take any action?
The Newcomer is character-driven writing, by a writer praised for her keen observations of the same. Paulina is fascinating precisely because she is a rejection of so many cultural expectations of likability. She’s mouthy, rude, provocative, and often messily drunk. Her relationship with her mother, while volatile, is redemptive. Judy not only sees Paulina’s flaws, she is desperate to remember them, sobbing to her therapist that she is “forgetting how nasty she was”. Later, though, when Judy is manipulated into appearing on a television show examining Paulina’s case, she calls her daughter “the love of my life”. Judy’s grief, guilt and uncertainty cut away any sense of Paulina having deserved her death.
Woollett’s prose is intellectual and deliberate, with every element of the text feeding into the book’s overall themes. She exploits every angle the crime genre has to offer to reinforce her incisive commentary regarding the social and systemic failings towards violence against women. Paulina is made a victim many times over before she is murdered, but until her body is found no one thinks to help. If anything, she is presented as beyond help, alienating even Jesse, who is the only one to visit her house after she dies. At times the book wears its intellect too heavily, the mechanics of how and why Woollett is writing the story coming at the expense of the narrative tension. But for the most part it works, and is a page-turner nonetheless.
The Newcomer asks the reader to look uncomfortably close to home, and to ask ourselves what atrocities we overlook by turning a blind eye. The violence that Paulina endures at the hands of herself and multiple men is difficult to read and won’t be for everyone, particularly as some of the more extreme examples fail to meet any satisfying justice. But despite the book’s unsettling provocations, Woollett also has a lot of fun with the genre, and crime lovers will appreciate the fresh perspective to the traditional whodunnit. It casts aside the central detective figure and instead focuses on the various women in the novel. Judy is devastatingly relatable, and her presence is the heart of the novel.
The Newcomer does a lot in its short pages, weaving together a story of grief and unhappiness with a compelling crime narrative. Ultimately it is a book about exclusion and justice, and the way we construct victims to fit narratives that make us feel better, when we should be railing against the systems and individuals that have failed them all the way.
• The Newcomer by Laura Elizabeth Woollett is out now in Australia through Scribe