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Sunday, July 29, 2007

Review : All Those Bright Crosses by Ross Duncan

Title : All Those Bright Crosses
Author: Ross Duncan
Publisher: Picador
Date Published: 2007
ISBN-13: 97803304253250
Sub-Genre: Modern Contemporary

Hell and back. It's a long hard journey and one that often has to be made alone. It's a savagely emotional trip that may be dealt with any number of ways. All Those Bright Crosses, the debut novel by Ross Duncan introduces us to Martin Flint who is half-way through his trip. He's been to hell and this is the story of his attempt to get back.

The story begins in Fiji with Martin drinking kava with the proprietor of the Twilight Homestay guesthouse and a Fijian stranger. The man enquires how Flint came to be in Fiji and the sad tale of his past comes pouring out. He tells of his gambling addiction and the debt that he put himself and his wife into thanks to long sessions playing poker machines. After the accidental death of his 4 year old daughter he had become detached and in need of a distraction and it was to the flashing lights and promise of a big pay-out that he was drawn.

It was only after he realised just how hopelessly in debt he had placed them that he confessed his addiction to his wife. The inevitable separation hit him hard, numbing him into inaction, leaving him to mope around the house, seeking help from Gamblers Anonymous and lurching desperately for some kind of distraction.

The distraction comes in the form of an old newspaper article that tells about a shipwreck off a Fijian island and of a treasure that may have been on board. He initially began searching for references to the shipwreck merely as a means of escaping the problems he was facing. But as his research grew, so did the possibility that the story had merit and that much of the treasure may still not be recovered.

The death of his father leaves him a small inheritance and he uses it to follow his research to Fiji, not really knowing where it will lead him but willing to chase it nonetheless.

Tinged with regret yet still tainted by the gambling compulsion that grips him, Martin tells his story straight, acknowledging his mistakes and weaknesses frankly. His nature, which is happy to embrace risk, even thrives on it, means that he is going to follow the research that brought him to Fiji despite the occasional person who tries to dissuade him from attempting to find the treasure.

But the treasure really only ever sits as a partially formed idea on the edge of our consciousness, never really solidifying into reality. Instead, it is the motivation for keeping him in Fiji while he encounters others who are similarly trying to get a grasp on their own lives. As his rehabilitation progresses, the importance of the treasure diminishes and the friendships he has formed strengthen and grow. Chief among these is a young Fijian woman named Tabua whom he meets in a nightclub. Tabua is a poor woman who has resorted to prostitution in the past to survive. The self-inflicted cigarette burns on her arms speak of the self-loathing she battles. Their deepening friendship forms the pivotal point to the story with Martin learning much about himself though her.

When searching for a few words that might effectively describe All Those Bright Crosses I considered mystery, and there is a hint of a mystery within, but more definitively this is a psychological struggle reminiscent of that which is seen in a noir novel. It is a contemporary story of hope and forgiveness found after a battle with the compulsions that threaten to consume you.

The plot unfolds in a sedate, unhurried fashion finding a comfortable rhythm as we are taken back via a flashback to the circumstances that led to Martin Flint to be drinking kava in a dingy Fiji guesthouse.

The only moment of disquiet for me came at the end of the novel which is left wide open, and while that had me grasping for a meaningful sense of closure, it also emphasised the fact that Martin's journey was ongoing. When I closed the book on the final page I couldn't help but wonder whether he was going to make it. One thing is for certain, All Those Bright Crosses is a richly rewarding story of growth and renewal that smoothly deals with addiction, grief and senseless loss.

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