A teenage girl who mysteriously disappears; a dark and disturbed youth who might be worshipping Satan; a paranoid community; a vengeful father; a man with everything to lose. Wild Place has all the ingredients of a classic page-turner.
The third novel by author and screenwriter Christian White (who co-created the Netflix hit Clickbait and co-wrote horror film Relic) is set in the small community of Camp Hill on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula (the area where the author also lives). Taking place in the final weeks of 1989, we meet Tracie briefly before she vanishes. She’s seemingly as innocent as the driven snow. The police and detectives tell her parents that it’s likely she’s run away. Is it because of their divorce, or has she escaped the confines of small-town existence with a boy?
Tom Witter, a lifelong resident of Camp Hill and teacher at the local high school, becomes obsessed with solving the riddle of her disappearance. As he discovers more about Tracie and the other residents of Camp Hill, we see that – unsurprisingly – all is not as rosy as it might seem. Families are struggling: teenagers will be teenagers, and adults are only just managing to cope with the demands of everyday life.
Tom is an interesting choice for the detective. Withholding Tom’s true motive for most of the narrative, White offers perhaps the most biting social critique contained in Wild Place – problematic gender dynamics and the insidious nature of toxic masculinity.
While he is by far the most realised character in a book mostly populated by two-dimensional stereotypes, I found that key aspects of Tom’s personality, such as his compulsive twitching – for which he was mercilessly bullied in school – in the end come to very little. Without giving anything away about the end of Wild Place, not enough was made of how Tom’s nervous state relates to the social structures that enable domestic violence and sexual abuse to take place, and be covered up.
Sean, the young man who Tom suspects may be behind Tracie’s disappearance, is at first crudely drawn. He smokes, dresses in all black, treats his mother terribly, and listens to heavy metal. He’s got a tattoo of a pentagram, a sign of the devil. As the novel progresses we are given more insight into Sean’s motivations – perhaps he’s the most real, sympathetic character in the novel, someone many readers might be able to identify with.
Aside from being a fast-paced and engagingly written story, Wild Place’s strength lies with White’s reflections on masculinity and violence. Tom’s investigation brings him to his own son, Marty. It’s revealed that he has been in love with Tracie. “For a while, I didn’t even notice her … then suddenly I couldn’t stop noticing her. I’d never experienced anything like it. It snuck up on me, like one of those nature documentaries where the lion stalks the gazelle.” Teen emotions are one thing, but the language we use to articulate them, and the power dynamics they create, are another. This image of the lion and the gazelle speaks to the core of Wild Place.
White goes to considerable lengths to evoke a literal Wild Place – a mysterious piece of land around which many of the houses of Camp Hill are built. Wild Place is a slightly unsettling (and unsettled) “heart of darkness” in the middle of White’s suburban safe space. I loved how he had his characters voyeuristically spy on each other from the transgressive darkness of the bushland. But the absence of any reference to Indigenous history was at times grating. Somehow White’s Camp Hill and Wild Place have seemingly avoided being haunted by the violence of Australia’s past. It is ironic when a character reflects: “It feels like there’s plenty of evil in the real world to be worried about.” There is evil, and it is historical and present, as well as domestic.
In the author’s note at the end of the book, White mentions the resonances he sees between the “Satanic panic – the wave of hysteria and moral outrage that swept the world in the 1980s and 90s” – and the current flowering of conspiracy theories spawned by the Covid 19-pandemic. The common denominator in both situations is, for White, fear. While Wild Place does lean too heavily on some tired genre tropes, the novel does offer an absorbing portrait of how communities can be blinded by what they think are malevolent outside forces. In fact, the greatest danger comes from the people we know.
Wild Place by Christian White is out now through Affirm Press (RRP$32.99)