By Dinuka McKenzie
Publisher/Year: Harper Collins/2022
In Northern New South Wales, heavily pregnant and a week away from maternity leave, Detective Sergeant Kate Miles is exhausted and counting down the days. But a violent hold-up at a local fast-food restaurant with unsettling connections to her own past, means that her final days will be anything but straightforward.
When a second case is dumped on her lap, the closed case of a man drowned in recent summer floods, what begins as a simple informal review quickly grows into something more complicated. Kate can either write the report that’s expected of her or investigate the case the way she wants to.
As secrets and betrayals pile up, and the needs of her own family intervene, how far is Kate prepared to push to discover the truth?
Reviewer: Naomi Manuell
A State Emergency Service volunteer ventures out into the water in darkness, risking his own life to reach a man clinging to a mound of debris in the driving rain. Over the last few flood-ravaged years we’ve witnessed such scenes with mounting horror. They’re becoming all too frequent and familiar. Also familiar are the rescuer’s thoughts as he wades out and his frustration with the public ‘risking their lives in floodwaters for all sorts of inadequate reasons, like being in a hurry.’ As the water rages, it’s a race against time to rescue the man before the mound of debris disintegrates completely. As opening scenes go, this is one of the most gripping I’ve read in ages. But it’s the story that unfolds after this that packs the biggest punch. Dinuka McKenzie’s novel The Torrent won the 2020 Banjo Prize, a competition run by HarperCollins with the stated aim of unearthing Australia’s next great storyteller. They’ve definitely found one here.
The narrative alternates between the night of the flood and the present as a heavily pregnant Detective Sergeant Kate Miles is running down the clock before she goes on maternity leave. However, work is far from easing off for the exhausted detective as she embarks on an investigation into a disturbing armed holdup. At the same time, she is also saddled with the job of reviewing a report into an apparently open-and-shut case of drowning during the floods. McKenzie sets her novel in the Northern Rivers region of New South Wales in the fictional town of Esserton. The pace of the narrative allows for just the right amount of back story to percolate through. McKenzie wastes no time establishing the day-to-day world of DS Miles and her police colleagues in the thick of their enquiries. As an author she is adept at clever characterisation, inviting the reader to make certain assumptions about people and then subtly revealing the truth along the way. Even apparently minor characters are vividly rendered and surprisingly memorable. Dr Barlow, a particularly grumpy senior forensic pathologist with a smoker’s cough, is a character I’m already dying to meet again.
DS Miles’s pregnancy provides significant added tension across the plot and sets up the inevitable question: can any of this be resolved before the baby comes? McKenzie does a brilliant job evoking all the cumbersome physicality of pregnancy. There were times I felt DS Miles’s exhaustion so palpably that I wanted to make her a cuppa and give her a foot rub. The way Miles keeps going underscores her tenacity as an investigator as well as her empathy and decency.
McKenzie has written another Kate Miles novel, Taken, which was published early 2023. If the author continues to develop her cast of characters and delves further into Kate Miles and her interesting family history, then it’s bound to be another great read. The Torrent is packed with plenty of action and plot twists. Ultimately though, the book is elevated by the spaces in between, the quiet moments in which characters begin to understand one another and deeper truths about the nature of love, parenthood and grief begin to emerge.