Submitted by David Whish-Wilson on Fri, 01/04/2011 – 11:33

Every city has one. A crime story that despite its enormity is never solved, where in the face of the lack of an answer people are forced to provide their own theories, legends, myths. The murder of Shirley Finn in Perth is one such story, the disappearance of Juanita Neilson in Sydney another.

Stephen Orr’s recent novel, Time’s Long Ruin (Wakefield Press 2010) examines the improbable and troubling disappearance of three young children from a crowded Adelaide beach, in 1960 (linked very closely the disappearance of the three Beaumont children in Adelaide, in 1966.)

The tagline on the front cover reads ‘what happens when children disappear?’, and in every sense, Orr’s novel is a fictional exploration that seeks an answer to this question, rather than an answering of who committed the crime.

The novel is narrated by Henry Page, who still lives in the same suburban house that he grew up in, some fifty years after the three Riley children’s disappearance (Janice, Anna and Gavin were his next door neighbours, and best friends). Henry’s father is a detective, and even before the children disappear, Orr goes to great lengths to detail the way such mysteries enthral a city’s inhabitants, when his father and Bill Riley discuss obsessively the earlier mystery surrounding the identity of a man found dead on another suburban beach.

The novel works patiently to characterise both the Riley children (who don’t disappear until roughly halfway through the 400 page novel) and the suburb of Croyden, and its inhabitants. Henry is an awkward character who reveres his father, even when he’s beaten by him, and yet is chary of his mother, an unsympathetic and resentful woman who abandons them at one point, and who he discovers has written on the back of a picture of the three of them – Holy Trinity, 1948. The father, the wife and the crippled son (his mother’s fears that she’d give birth to a ‘cripple’ having been realised.)   Henry describes his mother elsewhere as a Russian doll, one inside the other, each almost identical except for one slight difference: an expression, a word, a gesture, or something not said. Each locked away, appearing at the strangest moments. Changing from one mum to another. Happily baking biscuits one moment and then dissecting your weaknesses the next (in this she is very like the mother in John Bauer’s novel Rocks in the Belly).  Henry’s father, however, is lovingly portrayed, both as the long-suffering husband of an inexplicably withdrawn wife, and the figure of neighbourhood respect that comes with his office as detective. Henry’s mother doesn’t appear to care much how Henry feels, evidenced in passages like the following, where she becomes enraged at her husband’s suggestion that they perhaps try for another child:

How would Henry feel?’ Dad pleaded through the door of the woodshed. Calmly. Quietly. The professional way. The way he talked to murderers and child abusers. Detached. Relying on the facts. The best way to get at the truth. But Mum didn’t reply. At that moment, I suppose, she didn’t really care how I’d feel – if I could hear her, if I was squatting scared and alone nearby…’Go to Hell…

The slow pace of the novel’s first half, prior to the Riley children’s disappearance allows Orr to spend a great deal of time getting to know them, which is important in a novel that is never going to achieve any real resolution, where the purpose is rather to look at the previously idyllic Croyden through new eyes. The Riley children are beautifully drawn, each child authentic to their age, each distinct in character, which of course makes their disappearance all the more tragic (particularly the eldest child Janice, Henry’s protector from the neighbourhood bullies, and the youngest child, Gavin, who is just right for a boy of his age.)

The novel speaks to a time perhaps more innocent than our own, but one certainly less anxious. When the families travel to the coast for a holiday (in a scene many Australians will recognise with nostalgic fondness), the suburbanites don’t take long to shrug off their mores and more formal ways, and become quickly feral in their desperate desire to relax:

It was nearly dark, but that meant nothing to the caravan kids. They were still out everywhere, riding around on bikes parents had just managed to cram into boots of old Holdens. The caravan kids wore over-tight shorts and bathers and were brown. After a few days on hot sand, gravel and hard bitumen roads their soles had hardened. They’d forgotten the rules of civilisation. Visiting was allowed anywhere, anytime. Bedtime was whenever dads ran out of beer. Clothes were worn for days and showers were unheard of. And it was the same for parents. The kids were off somewhere, no point worrying where. No one had to watch their language or avoid farting in mixed company. Men could be seen with their shirts off: as it turned out, nobody’s body was worse than anyone else’s. Dishes were left to pile up in sinks and dirty clothes soon formed small mountains in the corner of vans.

There are other colourful character who live on the Croyden streets, representative of the times, certainly, the New Australians amidst the slightly wary Anglo-Australians, but it is never clear whether or not Henry now looks back at this earlier time in his life as a period of innocence, or of general denial, given that at one time he is molested by the local doctor, and the fact that the Riley children disappear so easily from such a public place (all notions of community practiced in the street aside.)

When the children do disappear, having journeyed to the local beach unaccompanied by their mother, who is called to visit a sick sister, the pace of the novel picks up, and the tone changes as Henry and his parents and neighbours struggle to reconcile the traces of the children’s presence (the bikes, the clothes, their empty desks at school) with their absence in the face of a lack of solid clues, the lack of any remains despite thorough searching, and the effect this has on the relationships of those left behind. Henry, of course, is mortified by the loss, especially since he’s always hero-worshipped his father as the detective, the revealer of the truth. Suspicions begin to fall upon those in the community who might have had the motive, or the means, including the children’s father, and a neighbour who was once seen to massage the eldest daughter’s shoulders, and as the search endures with little or no result, a kind of magical thinking begins to pervade the street, Henry begins to see the children in his dreams, and in his day-dreams, clairvoyants are called in to take up where the police have failed, theories start to abound, some more outlandish than others.

But the children are never found, in fiction as in real life, and it is Henry who is left behind at the novel’s end, the last survivor of the old community since irrevocably changed, haunted and alone and still bearing witness to the damage done to a life, to a family and a neighbourhood, because of the loss of the three children he once called friends.

Time’s Long Ruin was short-listed for the best fiction award for the Commonwealth Writers Prize, SE Asia and Pacific region, and long-listed for the 2011 Miles Franklin Award.

Time’s Long Ruin – Stephen Orr, Wakefield Press, 2010. From the dustjacket – ‘Nine year old Henry Page is a club-footed, deep-thinking loner, spending his summer holidays reading, roaming the melting streets of his suburb, playing with his best friend Janice and her younger brother and sister. Then one day Janice asks Henry to spend the day at the beach with them. He declines, a decision that will stay with him forever.’