The Town Built On Sorrow: brilliantly chilling

SorrowLike Goldilocks’ porridge, this is neither too brief nor too verbose; not needlessly complicated but intrinsically clever in its composition. It pulls together two dark tales, one from the pioneer days when wagon trains headed west to start new settlements, and the other in the 21st century. The town of Hawthorn has, as the title explains, sadness in its very foundations, buried deep in the dirt.

When a series of unexplained murders are committed you can almost smell the coffee and pines of Twin Peaks – this is small-town America, haunted by an horrific killer who is much more than he initially seems… but there the similarities end. We don’t follow the police investigation in The Town, but instead observe events from the perspective of a teenage girl. Harper has become fascinated with her historical counterpart, a member of the town’s five founding families, who wrote a diary all those years ago. The document survives into modern times – and that only makes its sudden ending, and the lack of even a grave for the girl who abruptly disappears from history, all the more mysterious…

Published by Flux who specialise in YA fiction, this book could conceivably be categorised as a coming of age tale but it neatly sidesteps the wince-inducing patronising tone of much of the genre. Nor does it indulge in the embarrassing nostalgia of the mature escapist author seeking simpler times in a sanitised version of teenage dreams. Instead Oppegaard convincingly captures the insecurity and the angst of adolescence, the ennui which comes with the self-awareness of existence, neatly balanced by the absurd energy of youth.

His young protagonists are feisty and intelligent, forthright and observant. He also has the multi-kid family dynamic nailed to perfection – the verbal exchanges between Harper and ‘The Mom’ are spot-on and bittersweet, while the young woman’s interactions with her aging grandmother are saturated with affectionate pathos.

The result is a tense tale of intrigue and mystery, part serial-killer stalker-thriller and part historical recreation. The old myths of first nations underpin the more eerie aspects of the adventure, but at no time does it veer into gratuitous slasher-schlock. Nor does Oppegaard scrimp on the characterisation of his killers – in both eras, the bad guys are every bit as well developed and sympathetic characters as the folk they may prey upon. Life in this particular town is… complicated.

A well-constructed, somewhat unsettling story, then, which flows with deceptive ease and finishes in an entirely satisfying and credible fashion. Only after you’ve finished it do you realise just how quietly accomplished it is. It might’ve been written for a teenage audience (I’d suggest older teens as some of the gory stuff is pretty explicit), but certainly it hit the spot with this rather more mature reader.

8/10
Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason
The Town Built On Sorrow by David Oppegaard is available as an ebook and paperback

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