Review of The Dark Lake, by Sarah Bailey

Especially for English-speaking readers, we now have more national literatures than we have stories, so that with a few changes in local colour & weather, it doesn’t matter very much whether we’re reading Australian literature, Canadian literature, or (in translation) Scandinavian literature. Sarah Bailey’s The Dark Lake is set in NSW @ Christmastime, but except for the characters sweltering in holiday party Santa costumes whilst threatened by bush fires, the story could have as easily taken place near Winnipeg with blizzards instead. It’s set in a provincial town, apparently just far enough from Sydney to escape being a suburb. Rosalind Ryan, a popular high-school English & drama teacher has been drowned in a nearby lake, just as her production of an adaptation of Romeo & Juliet was being performed @ the school, with the lead actor a prime suspect. What makes this story special is that the principal detective & narrator, Gemma Woodstock, was Rosalind’s contemporary & rival when they were students @ the same school. Not very professional, but in a small town it’s believable that an investigator would have been involved with the victim (cf. The Dry.) But Gemma’s personal life is out of control. She is still attached to the memory of her high-school heartthrob Jacob, who committed suicide. She is living with the father of her son Ben – a pre-schooler – who is named Scott, whom she has not married. But Gemma is currently involved in a secret passionate affair with an Englishman named Felix, a married man with teenagers who is also her detective partner. (Even less professional, granted.) Tho’ I thoroughly disliked Gemma (& if the series continues I’ll not be around for her reappearances), I found Rosalind a fascinating and attractive character and was caught up in the quest for her killer. Gemma’s own life is, frankly, a mess, & she constantly overacts the role of star in her own domestic drama. This book is also too long. An excessive number of minor characters introduce themselves for no other reason than to be red herrings. With better editing @ about 3/4 the present length, The Dark Lake would be a enjoyable read-once-and-forget, tho’ strangely I found Rose haunting: I could imagine a school story like Mindy Mijia’s Everything You Want Me to Be with her as a main character. As I’ve just finished composing a novel featuring a school production of Shakespeare, it was quite fun to compare notes. But as a detective story, The Dark Lake is readable but Gemma is too high-maintenance to be worth the effort to keep as a friend. I am grateful to Hachette Group and Netgalley for an ARC.

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