It is 1986, and 14 year old twins Samson and Jonah are heading from the Sunshine Coast to the wild mountains of Tasmania to stay with the grandfather they have never met. Sarah Kanake has supplanted the popular noir mystery genre to the depths of the Tasmanian backcountry in Sing Fox To Me, beautifully interweaving a mystical symbiotic connection between humans and the natural world they are surrounded by.
And where their grandfather Clancy lives, it is dangerous to attempt to deny the power of the world they live in. It is his mountain, still stalked by the possibility of the ghost of the officially-extinct Thylacine, as well as that of his missing daughter River – Samson and Jonah’s aunt – the beautiful, wild girl who Clancy could never let go of. Bushfire, snakebite, flooding and storms; the life and livelihood of Clancy and his family is at the whim of the forest.
It also captures the imagination and fears. When you live in a wilderness that holds such power over your life, let alone the forest that has taken your daughter, it reaches into your soul and changes you. Clancy is disconnected from Samson and Jonah, partly because their father is the child that lived after his beautiful River was lost forever. Clancy has spent so long involved with the possibilities of what the mountain might contain – be it beast or child – he does not connect with what is in front of him.
“The skin around the mountain heard the sigh from deep inside the rock and, for the first time since the birth of River Fox, everything felt calm. The trees relaxed and the leaves swayed, almost as if they could finally breathe. The creek rushed, not because it was chasing anything, but because it longed to feel the smooth and stable rocks beneath. The waterfall cascaded like soft summer rain into the still water.”
So there is some mystery, a dose of gothic, some myth and mysticism, some compulsive and beautiful articulations of what the harsh, stunning Australian wilderness can be like, and a deeply tragic family story crossing decades. But Kanake, who has a PhD in representations of Down syndrome in Australian literature, has even more to add: Samson has Down syndrome, his narration perfectly inhabited, and very real part of Jonah’s fractious, brooding identity is informed by this.
“He heard something. Was it drumming, deep underground? He bent forward and opened his arms wide. The air warm as flesh that was filled with life. Beneath it, the heartbeat, the hard drumming centre of the bush. He wove himself through. He’d been part of things before, often even the centre, but nothing had ever felt like this.”
Everyone here is on some kind of hunt, and as the book switches first person narrators between chapters, there is an immediate, uncomfortable intimacy with their desires and their distance from those around them. Abandoned by both parents, Jonah is desperate for a life away from his brother; his father is hunting his own meaning and career, abandoning his sons to his own father; meanwhile Clancy is chasing the mountain’s secrets, fighting for their revelations.
Kanake does not explain too much, or apologise for the difficulties of her narrative. It is potent stuff. Like the mountain they live on, she never yields everything, leaving the reader both wrapt and mystified. Just like its setting, just like its characters, it is a dark and thrilling novel, beautiful and frustrating and perfectly captured.