A adolescent girl who mysteriously disappears; a dark and troubled youth who could worship Satan; a paranoid community; a vengeful father; a man with everything to lose. Wild Place has all the makings of a classic page turner.
The third novel by author and screenwriter Christian White (who co-created the Netflix hit Clickbait and co-wrote the horror film Relic) takes place in the small community of Camp Hill on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula (the region where the author also lives). Taking place in the final weeks of 1989, we briefly meet Tracie before she disappears. She is apparently as innocent as beaten snow. Police and detectives tell her parents she probably ran away. Is it because of their divorce, or has she escaped the confines of being a small town with a boy?
Tom Witter, a longtime Camp Hill resident and local high school teacher, becomes obsessed with solving the riddle of his disappearance. As he finds out more about Tracie and the other residents of Camp Hill, we see that – unsurprisingly – not everything is as rosy as it seems. Families are struggling: teens will be teens, and adults barely cope with the demands of everyday life.
Tom is an interesting choice for the detective. Retaining Tom’s true motive for most of the narrative, White offers perhaps the most biting social critique contained in Wild Place – the problematic gender dynamics and the insidious nature of toxic masculinity.
Although he is by far the most accomplished character in a book predominantly populated by two-dimensional stereotypes, I have found that key aspects of Tom’s personality, such as his compulsive contractions – for which he was ruthlessly intimidated into the school – end up being very little. Without revealing anything about the ending of Wild Place, not enough has been said about how Tom’s nervous state relates to the social structures that allow domestic violence and sexual abuse to take place and be. concealed.
Sean, the young man Tom suspects is behind Tracie’s disappearance, is first crudely drawn. He smokes, dresses all in black, treats his mother terribly and listens to heavy metal. He got a pentagram tattoo, a sign of the devil. As the novel progresses, we get more insight into Sean’s motivations – he is perhaps the most real and likeable character in the novel, someone with whom many readers could relate. .
As well as being a fast-paced and engagingly written story, the strength of Wild Place lies in White’s reflections on masculinity and violence. Tom’s investigation leads him to his own son, Marty. It is revealed that he is in love with Tracie. “For a while I didn’t even notice her… then suddenly I couldn’t help but notice her.” I had never experienced anything like it. It sneaked up on me, like one of those nature documentaries where the lion stalks the gazelle. Adolescent emotions are one thing, but the language we use to express them and the power dynamics they create is another. This image of the lion and the gazelle speaks to the heart of Wild Place.
White goes to great lengths to conjure up a literal wilderness – a mysterious piece of land around which many Camp Hill homes are built. Wild Place is a slightly disturbing (and unstable) “heart of darkness” in the middle of the safe space of the White suburb. I loved the way his characters voyeuristically spy on each other from the transgressive darkness of the bush. But the absence of any reference to Indigenous history was sometimes squeaky. Somehow, White’s Camp Hill and Wild Place have seemingly avoided being haunted by the violence of Australia’s past. It’s ironic when a character reflects, “It feels like there’s a lot of evil in the real world to worry about. There is evil, and it is historical and present, as well as domestic.
In the author’s note at the end of the book, White mentions the resonances he sees between “satanic panic – the wave of hysteria and moral outrage that swept the world in the 1980s and 90s” – and the current flowering of conspiracy theories engendered by the Covid 19 pandemic. The common denominator of both situations is, for White, fear. While Wild Place leans too much on some tired genre tropes, the novel offers a gripping portrayal of how communities can be blinded by what they think are malicious outside forces. In fact, the greatest danger comes from the people we know.