Having grown up in Clare and then being based in London, Mark McAvaney centres his novel on the return of expatriate journalist Mac (also living in London) to his small South Australian hometown of Ennis Creek, 13 years after a car accident left his best friend Dave comatose and sent reverberations throughout the close-knit rural community.

The book has a light, poetic touch. The day Mac arrives back in town, “a large sky stretched out forever. It was bright and blue and beneath it a sea of sunburnt wheat rolled with the wind like waves”.

The work is elegantly structured, with a central mystery – and several other long simmering secrets besides – weighing on Mac and helping keep readers hooked without ever feeling contrived.

Perspectives shift between Mac and Dave’s present in 2003, Dave’s narration of the week or so before his accident in 1990, and interspersed segments – italicised and more ambiguously voiced – describing the paths various characters may have taken “in another life”. Their friends Robyn and Simo, Dave’s younger sister Julie and mother Joy all emerge as complex, well-drawn characters who balance out the story’s narrative focus.

McAvaney makes good use of his layered period setting, both in terms of pop-cultural nostalgia and the worldly political currents backdropping its otherwise personal, emotional weight. Mac’s war correspondent work in Afghanistan and our knowledge of America’s long military adventurism to follow find their mirror in 1990 with news of Iraq invading Kuwait – and passing concern about whether it will affect a post-school overseas trip. Mac scrolls through a first-generation iPod on his bus ride back, circling his finger around the white dial through pixelated words, pausing on INXS before playing the Foo Fighters instead.

But it is Michael Hutchence’s band and their album Kick on cassette that form a key motif linking both timelines. It’s a remembered soundtrack to Mac and Dave’s youth, along with less explicit references to other staples of ’80s Australian rock lyricism: Icehouse echoed by “an electric blue cloud of dust” trailing behind a speeding car, or The Church’s “Under the Milky Way” suggested as two young lovers lie in the back of a ute, the galaxy stretching above them.

Themes of youthful adventure, escape and freedom abound, as the teenagers quote Back to the Future lines (“where we’re going – we don’t need roads”) in their embrace of a seemingly endless present.

But, of course, we see how that present exists always in the shadow of what has come before, and it’s not possible to know or plan with certainty for what will happen next. Nostalgia is comfort, but pondering the contingencies of life also unsettles us. One particularly evocative chapter describes a surrealist dream reminiscent of David Lynch, a haunting reflection of the scars we carry beneath our everyday routines.

McAvaney gives us a gently thoughtful meditation on reckoning with, not repressing, the past. Of learning to let go and move on, in our different ways, without forgetting what has mattered most – in all the lives we’ve led, or might have.

For Everything a Time, by Mark McAvaney, is published by Ultimo Press.

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