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Rare Jewel of a Novel: Dustfall by Michelle Johnston

March 6, 2018

‘Haunting and lyrical, humming with compassion and insight…Michelle Johnston is a rare talent, and this is a rare jewel of a novel.’ Kathryn Heyman

‘Sometimes illness and death carries with it a deep sense of mystery and unfairness which cannot be predicted, even by those who have some sort of knowledge of it.’

In Michelle Johnston’s stunning debut novel Dustfall, two doctors living thirty years apart find themselves fleeing from a disastrous medical error, only to end up in the same isolated mining town in Wittenoom, Perth.

In 1966, Doctor Raymond Filigree, a disgraced English practitioner, moves to the remote Australian town with hopes of renewing his career and escaping his past. Instead he finds a mining town controlled by corporations determined to unearth the valuable asbestos, no matter the human cost. His medical past and the dire consequences of corporate avarice are exposed when an accidental explosion in the mines plunges the town into a catastrophe that begins its fatal spiral downwards.

Thirty years later, in 1996, Dr Lou Fitzgerald finds herself wandering the eerie corridors of Wittenoom Hospital, inspecting archaic medical equipment and handwritten notes that provide clues to the town’s tragic history. There, she meets Dave, an enigmatic yet charming straggler who guides her through the wasteland and tells her the long, sad story of Wittenoom’s past. Dr Fitzgerald, a dreamy type with a passion for writing, begins to record the stories for posterity, but her investigations into the mysterious and desolate town are derailed by a court case involving a devastating medical mishap.

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Crisscrossing between the two doctor’s lives in alternating chapters, Johnston has written a contemporary morality tale about responsibility, blame, human error and guilt, framed by the asbestos mining tragedy. Dustfall is inspired by the real-life Wittenoom scandal, one of Australia’s darkest chapters in living memory, but to consider Johnston’s achievement mere fiction totally neglects the galaxy of medical, historical, and cultural insights that illuminate the story like shooting stars in a black sky.

The word ‘atmospheric’ is so often used that it’s easy to be dismissive when it pops up. Michelle Johnston’s debut Dustfall, however, is so rich in detail and narrative intensity it reclaims the power storytelling to transport an individual sitting alone in a room to another time and place whether it’s the Emergency ward or the parched, red outback.

There’s some magic in Dustfall, as well, with its amazing power to transform from a story damning of corporate greed and the evil that was asbestos mining, to one full of compassion for the workers who lost their lives to the shattering consequences for patients, their families and doctors alike, of medical error.

Beautifully written, lyrical, haunting, fearless – in Johnston, Australian publishing has discovered a virtuoso talent, and you can only hope that by shining a light on a heinous chapter in Western Australia’s mining history, her book Dustfall will make it even harder to forget.

About the author

Michelle Johnston is a consultant Emergency Physician at a Perth hospital. She studied medicine at UWA, and gained her Fellowship with the Australian College for Emergency Medicine in 1998. She believes there is a beating heart of humanity, art, and beauty within the brutal reality of the emergency department.

Grab a copy || Start reading now || read our interview with Michelle Johnston


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