An explosive, haunting and utterly compelling crime novel about mothers and sons and the ties that bind them.
A small Yarra Valley town has been devastated by a bushfire, and Reefton Primary School Principal Phoebe Warton can’t sleep. She’s the single mother of Caleb, struggling teen with an emo style and a talent for art, who is accused of starting the fire – on purpose. Twelve people are dead, students from her school among them; only a monster would cause such carnage. But where was her son that day? No one knows but Caleb, and he’s not talking.
Against mounting community rage, Phoebe sets out to clear her son. But every avenue leads back to Caleb. Why did he vanish from his Country Fire Authority shift? Who else was at the abandoned goldmine that day? Why is Caleb refusing to speak?
Phoebe will be forced to confront the nature of guilt and redemption and decide what boundaries she is willing to cross to save the son she loves.
Kimberley Starr won the 2015 Text Prize for YA and children’s writing (for The Book of Whispers), and the 2003 Queensland Premier’s Literary Award for best emerging author (for The Kingdom Where Nobody Dies), so you know you’re in the hands of an exceptional writer while immersing yourself in this sensitive subject matter. And the subject of bushfires in Australia is still a sensitive matter, but one it’s time to revisit. COVID-19 roared into our lives and took our focus away from the devastating bushfire season we had, but there are still many people out there struggling in the aftermath. Torched is a reminder, plus it is a really great read.
Each chapter opens with the name and bio of a goddess, and early on there’s a powerful poem, Burn the Witch. There is a thread of myth and archetypal energy weaved through this novel, the power a mother channels when her child is at risk, how groups react to fear, Rome burning. Destruction, death, rebirth.
Polished prose, complex, compelling characters, and a harrowing premise kept me glued to this book until the final pages. The story is told in the present day, in and out of a court room, and in harrowing flashbacks. Phoebe is the story’s main narrator and yet you question how reliable she is when it’s her son at risk, with Caleb as a later, and clever, addition. Seeing things from his perspective is interesting. Starr also does a great job setting the tone for the community, the fear, rage and reactionary prejudice. You can almost smell the eucalypt, the smoke.
Torched is lingering with me days after I finished reading it. Although written before the most recent fires, it remains timely and relevant and often painful. As the mother of sons a similar age to Caleb, I actually felt sick to the stomach, a physical reaction, at some points. The complex mother/son relationship is entirely relatable and I asked myself what I’d do in a similar situation.
The original publication of this excellent crime novel was pushed back from earlier this year to now, with both author and publisher sensitive to a book about a bushfire being released in the middle of Australia’s worst fires. Now, the timing couldn’t be better. People are still homeless, businesses, families and whole communities still struggling, but for many Australians their attention is now elsewhere. Torched is an excellent read and a timely reminder. But mostly, it’s a powerful, haunting novel about a mother and her love for her son.