The main action in Home Before Night - J.P. Pomare's newest novel - takes place over a few days during a lockdown in Melbourne. COVID-19 is not mentioned by name, so the setting reads like an alternative present or near future where things have gotten worse rather than better.
It gives the novel an oppressive and almost surreal feel, as the realities of the current waning pandemic - fifth dose boosters, overseas holidays, occasional masks - jostle with the realities of the novel. Lou - single mum, unemployed - is living in a world of vaccine-resistant strains, machines that read body language, police and soldiers patrolling the streets. She's also living with her uni student son, Samuel. One day, when a new curfew is announced, Sam doesn't come home.
There were things I liked about this novel. The pacing is propulsive, carrying the reader forward with a compelling sense that something is off, even while others - notably, Lou's ex husband, Sam's father - try to tell Lou there's nothing to worry about. Lou herself is an unusual narrator, needy and a bit paranoid, and I felt an instant sympathy for her pacing her tiny apartment. The plot also delivered the promised twists and turns, arriving at a suitably dramatic finale.
But overall, Home Before Night didn't sit quite right. I think it was the way it skated so lightly over pretty heavy topics. Without revealing the plot, I can only provide small examples. First, I know the postpartum experience is different for everyone, but it still seems likely that if you go swimming in a rough ocean two weeks after giving birth you'll be thinking about more than just how your hips are "certainly wider now".
Second, Lou can only afford one therapy session a month, although her redundancy package also included therapy, and also there's no mention of mental health plans. Maybe in this uncanny, worse-than-COVID pandemic world, support is more readily available. As a reader with no personal stake in the process of recovering from either birth or addiction, it was relatively easy to accept these infelicities and just enjoy the fast-moving story as it twisted and turned from cults and coercive control to social media manipulation to infertility and SIDS to hit-and-run accidents.
But these topics do matter to many people. Something makes me think that if they matter to you - for example if you're a new parent, or have personal experience with mental illness - you should read something else.
On the other hand, if you don't feel put off by the idea of these serious issues mostly being thrown about as red herrings or plot devices, and you're after an easy thriller with shocking crimes, you'll probably enjoy Home Before Night too.
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