Laura Elizabeth Woollett’s The Newcomer is a crime novel with a difference: for here, as the title suggests, the victim doesn’t cede the story to the perpetrators or those investigating, but instead remains the main focus of our attention throughout.
When her 29-year-old daughter Paulina goes missing on a sleepy pacific island, Judy Novak suspects the worst. Her fears are soon realised as Paulina’s body is discovered, murdered.
Every man on the island is a suspect, yet none are as maligned as Paulina herself, the captivating newcomer known for her hard drinking, disastrous relationships, and a habit for walking alone. But even death won’t stop Judy Novak from fighting for her daughter’s life.
The Newcomer opens with the disappearance of a young woman, Paulina Novak, who fails to meet up with her mother when they arranged. The grim discovery of her body soon afterwards could so easily have served as little more than the catalyst for the plot, with the victim almost becoming inconsequential to the story once the murder investigation and the hunt for the perpetrator(s) get underway. Laura Elizabeth Woollett instead upends convention and chooses to keep her victim alive, at least on the page. I welcomed this shift of emphasis.
Paulina leaves her job in Sydney to move to the (fictional) small South Pacific island of Fairfolk, originally founded by a mixture of mutineers and Polynesian islanders, and now popular with older Australians on holiday and as a honeymoon destination for younger ones. While it may look like paradise, the islanders’ attitude towards this influx of mainlanders (or “mainies” as they call them) often strikes a more jarring note. One which sounds every time island men stake out the airport and call dibs on the women coming through Arrivals.
Laura Elizabeth Woollett doesn’t flatter in her depiction of The Newcomer, either. From the moment we meet Paulina, drinking heavily at a friend’s wedding, she’s brash and abrasive, living life by her own rules, impervious as to how her behaviour impacts on others’ enjoyment of the special occasion. She’s pretty irreverent and certainly can’t be cowed by convention or any sense of decorum. Dead or alive, Paulina propels the action forward and Laura Elizabeth Woollett achieves this by keeping The Newcomer firmly centred around her or those grieving her. She’s not put on any pedestal, either. There’s one notable moment in the book where her mother, Judy, reminds herself how mean Paulina could be and tells herself not to forget this. From the moment Paulina fails to show, we experience the daughter through her mother’s emotions, recollections and, ultimately, grief. Paulina’s own story of how she came to relocate to Fairfolk island and her life there is interspersed throughout this.
The way in which the characters live and how they treat and talk to each other makes this a difficult read at times. So much almost seems to pass for normal, or is tolerated, accepted, or goes unremarked, let alone unpunished, which makes their interaction often seem abrasive, if not damaging or abusive. There are lighter moments where you can sense the love or affection characters have for each other but I finished the book feeling a little bruised by my encounter. And that’s even before you consider how much of this is drawn from the real-life events, people and place which inspired Laura Elizabeth Woollett to write this book.
While there are certainly some characters I warmed to more than others—the neighbour, Vera, her mother, Judy, aunt Caro, her friend, Jesse, and poor Bunny spring to mind—these characters are all flawed human beings: damaged, morally ambiguous or so much worse. Which, of course, is what makes this book such a captivating and intriguing read. I loved how this book challenges your own bias with each exchange that happens between these characters. You have to confront the way in which this all plays out. Paulina doesn’t deserve to die, at least one other character pays way too high a price for their actions, while others may have got away with murder, as well as a myriad of lesser offences. Where do you stand on all of that?
The Newcomer is more character-driven literary crime fiction than a traditional whodunit, so don’t expect a neat resolution with all the loose ends tied up. You may even end up questioning what you’re given, as I did, but this is where the book’s strength lies: it challenges you to consider where each character stands but also what your own position is. All while keeping Paulina firmly where she belongs, right at the heart of her own raw and messy but utterly compelling life story. It’s unconventional but impressive crime fiction.
The Newcomer by Laura Elizabeth Woollett is published by independent publisher Scribe UK as an audiobook, ebook and in paperback. You can find it at Amazon UK (affiliate link), Bookshop.org (affiliate link), Hive or Waterstones. For more on the author, visit her Author Website or follow her on Instagram or on Twitter.
My thanks to Patricia Chido at the publisher for sending me a review copy.