by B.M. Carroll

Publisher/Year: Affirm Press 2023

Publisher’s blurb

A missing backpacker

A million-dollar reward

Ordinary people cracking under pressure

Busy parents Mia and Ryan were devastated when their former nanny, Irish backpacker Tara, tragically disappeared. But that was two years ago. Now they want to move on and focus on their son … so why are the police questioning them again?

When single mum Beth wakes up to a house burglary, she immediately suspects her abusive ex-husband. But when bad things continue to happen to Beth, her fear is overtaken by desperation and anger.

A dark secret binds these families together. How far will they go to protect their own?

Reviewer: Christina Lee

This, the eleventh novel by Irish-Australian crime writer B.M. Carroll, is a definite must-read. Carroll’s previous novel, You Had It Coming, was shortlisted in 2022 for both the Ned Kellies and the Davitts. In this new book, she re-visits many of the themes of her earlier work – dysfunctional families, shared secrets, moral choices, and the ambiguity of criminality and victimhood – in another intriguing context.

Mia and Ryan are bringing up their behaviourally-challenged son on an isolated rural property. Outside Morisset, which is outside Newcastle, which is outside Sydney is the summation of their new nanny, a nineteen-year old fresh from Ireland and looking for all the excitement and adventure of the big smoke. Tara, the nanny, is clearly wrong for the job. She doesn’t like children, she is messy and thoughtless, and she doesn’t stick to the careful routines laid down by Mia to provide structure for the boy’s day. When she’s not out clubbing in Newcastle, she’s lying around the pool hungover, or taking over the bathroom to get ready for her next night out.

It’s never going to work, and after a couple of weeks Tara decides that she needs to move on. Tragically, a few weeks after that, she disappears. A neat pile of her clothes is found on the beach next to a Bondi backpackers. No body is found, but all the evidence points to a foolhardy, drunken late-night swim.

This history is told in flashbacks, mainly from the point of view of Mia, and the main action unfolds about two years later. Tara’s mother, back in Ireland, has never accepted that her daughter had swum out and drowned, and has raised a million-dollar reward for information leading to clarity and closure. The police decide to re-open the case.

Mia and Ryan are re-interviewed by the police, who begin to uncover new evidence, leading to new questions about what happened. It’s not a spoiler to say here that Tara’s mother is right, and that Mia and Ryan are responsible for Tara’s disappearance. This is not a run-of-the-mill whodunnit, and while the novel does follow the new investigation, the focus is very much on the psychological consequences for Mia and Ryan of living with their guilty secret. Most of the novel depicts the gradual unravelling of both these characters as they face the threat of revelation.

Carroll’s depiction of their increasing desperation, and their increasingly dangerous and criminal acts as they try to make evidence and testimony disappear, is subtly and cleverly done. The way in which one transgression leads to another, and then another, is totally believable, as are the emotional processes that send each of them spiralling in a different, desperate direction.

This is the real core of the novel, their totally believable psychological disintegration. From fairly low-key beginnings, the tension ratchets up with each passing chapter. And when an innocent person has information that threatens them, final decisions have to be made.

In the high-octane ending, one of the two finds the moral courage to seek out redemption, but the flaws in the other’s character that led to the disaster in the first place are the same ones that lead that person to a complete downfall. A satisfyingly tragic ending, in the Shakespearean sense.

I strongly recommend this book, which is engagingly written, psychologically believable, and deceptively complex.

The Other Side of Her