To the River tells the story of Sabine Kelly, a fiercely independent woman who lost her mother and sister to a caravan park fire when she was 17. She was quickly arrested for their murder, as well as the murder of seven others who were caught in the flames. After escaping custody, Sabine went on the run for 12 years, unable to speak for herself. Until now.
Author Vikki Wakefield has created a complex character in Sabine, someone whom we are drawn to and can feel deeply for – even while unsure whether she is a murderer. It can be difficult to carve protagonists readers are able to both like and, at times, disagree with and feel anger towards, but Wakefield achieves this with both Sabine and the other main character, Rachel Weidermann.
In the middle of a divorce, Rachel was made redundant from her job as a journalist and is now living in the riverside holiday house she once shared with her ex-husband. She has long been interested in the decade-old case of the caravan park murders, and thinks her unapproachable, dangerous neighbour knows something about them. Throwing herself into the case, Rachel quickly realises there is more to this story than meets the eye, and someone out there does not want her to tell it.
When Rachel tracks down Sabine, the two women commence a unique relationship, each with entirely self-serving motives. Rachel wants to land the story of a lifetime and re-establish her career, while Sabine seeks to clear her name once and for all.
What follows is a gripping story exploring class, corruption, murder and loneliness, all with the company of a brave and loyal dog.
The novel is set around the Murray River, with Wakefield’s apt descriptions sure to resonate with anyone who is familiar with the river, even if they haven’t been back since a childhood houseboat holiday. As we follow one character travelling down the Murray, she describes the familiar scene of “red-gold cliffs” and “the purest blue sky reflected on the water”, the Murray’s natural colours “more vivid than any postcard”.
Wakefield does not shy away from commentary on environmental damage being done to the river, amplified by the selfish behaviour of some tourists (“they’ll reel in carp for sport and leave them rotting on the banks”), as well as by those erecting holiday homes with little consideration of their impact. At one point, Rachel recognises how she failed to appreciate how her own actions had impacted the unique environment, recalling how she and her ex-partner “brought in a dozer to carve the riverbank into their own private beach… pumped excess sewerage into the water, believing it was not enough to do any real damage… cut down a two-hundred-year-old tree”.
“Damage is cumulative, through generations and over time.”
Wakefield, a previous winner of the Adelaide Festival Award for Literature, began her career writing young adult fiction and published her first adult psychological thriller, After You Were Gone, in 2022. Her new novel utilises a similar narration style to After You Were Gone, with each chapter alternating between Sabine and Rachel. At times we are taken back to Sabine’s childhood, though not excessively.
Whether you are an established crime reader or are seeking an introduction to the genre, To the River is a gripping read with a storyline that is easy enough to follow even if you put it down for a few days – though you may not want to put it down at all.
To the River, by Vikki Wakefield, will be published by Text Publishing on February 27. The author will give a talk about the book on Wednesday, February 14 (aka Library Lovers Day), at the Port Adelaide Library (details here).
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