An Isolated Incident by Emily Maguire

Review published on August 16, 2018.

The brutal murder of 25-year-old Bella Michaels shocks those living in the small town of Strathdee, draws the morbid attention of both the Australian media and the wider public, and devastates Bella’s beloved older sister, Chris. A barmaid at the local pub who sometimes resorts to other, less salubrious, means of making money, Chris has had a hard life and she exhibits a tough exterior to match, but she’s ill-equipped to handle the grief that results from her sister’s death. Despite the support offered by ex-husband Nate and various friends and neighbours, Chris is in serious danger of being overwhelmed by misery and desperation. Along with the legion of other reporters who arrive in Strathdee hoping for a scoop, May Norman believes that the murder could be the story to make her career, although she does have other reasons for burying herself in work.

As the investigation into Bella’s murder drags on – the police don’t seem to have much to go on, which the locals take to be proof that the killer must be an outsider, since Strathdee folk know what their neighbours are up to (although they don’t seem to act on that information, however bad the suspected offence may be) – grief continues to take a massive toll on Chris. She begins to withdraw from reality, questioning the extent to which she knows and can trust those around her, even making her own attempts to track down the killer. It seems questionable whether she will ever be able to recover from the loss of her sister. As for May, she continues to file reports on the murder and to hope for a break in the case, but she also ends up questioning her principles and her interest in Bella’s death.

An Isolated Incident is a story with a murder at its heart, but it’s not exactly a murder mystery (and it’s certainly no whodunit). Rather, it’s a powerful exploration of the impact that Bella’s death has on those closest to her – Chris, Nate, their friends and family – those involved in the investigation – May and other reporters, the police, people who fall under suspicion – and those in the wider Strathdee community. Emily Maguire has used the murder to question how people – both the guilty and the innocent – react to terrible events, as well as to consider how certain levels and types of “badness” can be overlooked or excused even in close-knit communities. For instance, despite all the coverage and widespread condemnation of the murder, May is harassed by a local man while out jogging; when she reports the matter to a policeman who happens to be nearby at the time, he excuses the harassment and states that the man means no real harm.

The characters of both Chris and May are very believable, even in their most extreme moments. While everyone is keen to point out how beautiful, kind and angelic Bella was, Chris initially appears cut from very different cloth. Then again, while Bella always had her older sister looking out for her, who was looking out for Chris? She seems drawn to difficult situations (even seemingly accidentally getting involved in prostitution) and dangerous people (potential clients of course and, although Nate comes across well in the book, it is made abundantly clear that he was violent towards her in the past), but she actually had a sound plan for the future and was doing her best to help provide for Bella. Chris’s relationships aren’t great and her grief drives her to the isolated brink of a breakdown, but it’s certainly not all her fault, and she does inspire love and loyalty in many she knows in Strathdee.

May initially seems far more together than Chris, but she is also battling her own relationship problems and striving to rediscover her purpose in the world. Although she doesn’t like to acknowledge it, when she first arrived in Strathdee, she thought that Bella’s death might have been the best thing to have ever happened to her. As she learns more about Bella’s life and about the lives she touched, May has to confront her prior mercenary attitude, as well as her own vulnerability to violence. As unlikely as it seems, Chris and May are destined to have important impacts on each other’s lives.

An Isolated Incident is the kind of story that stays with you for a long time after you finish reading it. It is a moving and often painful tale of grief and the devastation of loss, and it is also an exposé of the prevalence of casual sexism, misogyny and violence against women. It’s a compelling and intense story, one that is certainly very different from the typical psychological thriller. While it can’t exactly be described as an enjoyable read, for at times the subject matter is distinctly uncomfortable, An Isolated Incident is certainly a great and important book.

Erin Britton 5/5

An Isolated Incident by Emily Maguire
Lightning Books 9781785630835 pbk Aug 2018

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