The Precipice, Virginia Duigan

There’s a lot of fuss made about younger writers, which is well and good since we all want the craft of writing to be defended by the next generation. But there are some characters who can’t be brought to life convincingly by writers in their twenties. Thea Farmer is one such character. And she’s remarkable.

Thea is 77 years old and is the narrator of Virginia Duigan’s third novel The Precipice. The author is only in her early sixties, but clearly that is old enough for her to understand the insecurities and regrets Thea is grappling with. Thea is smart, pragmatic, blunt, and a little cranky, and she does a terrific job of walking us through a story that is ultimately horrific.

Thea is a retired school principal who was forced to end her career following a profoundly humiliating event connected to her friendship with a young male teacher. She now lives in the Blue Mountains with her dog Ted. Due to an unfortunate financial investment, she’s had to sell her dream house, a building she designed as a sanctuary in which to see out her days.  She moves into the rundown cottage a stone’s throw away from the dream house and watches resentfully as the new owners take over.

Thea intends to continue her very private life from the hovel, but the interlopers Frank, his wife Ellice, and their 12-year-old niece Kim, who’ve moved to the bush from Sydney, are more of a presence than she’d bargained for. Thea struggles with her changed circumstances. She says: ‘I thought I was going fairly well today but I got worse as the day wore on. The invaders went backwards and forwards outside their house like a team of scurrying ants. I think he and the girl took a load of empty boxes to the tip. There was some friendly waving. I pretended not to notice.’

Despite herself, Thea forms a bond with young Kim. So when she gets an inkling that something is not right between the flirtatious Frank and his niece, she becomes ferociously protective and takes action.

It’s not quite what you’re thinking, by the way. One of the joys of The Precipice is the intelligent writing. Duigan has worked as a scriptwriter and journalist and is the author of two other novels, Days Like These and The Biographer, so she knows what she’s doing. She controls the pace and tension of The Precipice with a masterly hand, never giving away too much or underestimating how complicated and slippery human behaviour can be.

This is a tight, direct story with very little veering off plot. If you’re after a sprawling narrative with a cast of thousands, spanning the generations, this is not the book for you. But if careful character studies and a mystery followed methodically from start to finish are your preference, it’s highly recommended.

The only problem with The Precipice – and it’s one a million wonderful novels share – is having a narrator so likeable and well-articulated do something we know to be utterly wrong. We find ourselves so deeply inside her mind, and so accepting of her logic, that the final action, normally unjustifiable, seems entirely reasonable. That passes once you look up from the page, of course. And at the end of the book, although you might not agree with the choices Thea has made, there is no doubt you will have enjoyed being with her while she made them.

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