Radiant Heat by Sarah-Jane Collins, a book review by Calum MacLeod
As Ginger Nuts readers know, horror comes in all manner of forms, whether on the page, on the screen or in real life,
In Radiant Heat, the debut novel by US-resident Australian journalist Sarah-Jane Collins, horror does not come in the form of a suave vampire, a frenzied werewolf or a gibbering Lovecraftian horror. Instead, the heart of this book lies with a more familiar, mundane evil, but that does not lesson the threat. It is more frightening if anything: this is a threat that could so easily be something faced by yourself or those you love.
Collins certainly knows how to craft an arresting opening as artist Alison King emerges from the cocoon of damp blankets she has wrapped round herself as she holes up in her bathroom to wait out one of Australia’s all too frequent bushfires.
Stepping out into a landscape of ash and blackened trees, Alison is shocked to find a strange cherry red car on her property. And in that car is the body of an unknown woman, seemingly untouched by the fire, but no less dead for that. A woman who looks like Alison, is the same age as Alison, lived in the same city she did. And carrying a piece of paper with Alison’s name and address.
As a narrative hook, it is a good one. The reader, like Alison, needs to know who this woman was, and why she has made the long journey from the north of Queensland to rural Victoria, and is beside Alison every step of the way as she tries to find out.
But Alison, still dealing with the loss of her parents and psychological demons of her own, is unsuited to being a sleuth, making clumsy attempts at finding out information and making bad decisions, the worst of them not leaving matters to that nice policeman who wants to be more than a one-night stand. But then, if she did that, there would be no book.
So instead, Alice leaves her home town behind and heads off in search of answers and a confrontation with her past, revisiting old haunts, old friends, old memories, but as she finds more answers, that quiet sense of menace builds to a real threat as she comes to realise what does connect her with the dead woman, and why she too might be in peril.
Alice is a complex and not entirely sympathetic character, but as Collins takes us into her head and shares her journey, we come to see why she has trust issues and the real story behind the death of her parents and why she has chosen her also hermit-like exile in the Outback.
Collins knows how to craft a sentence, building atmosphere and tension with a distinctly Aussie flavour that keeps you reading when the almost surreal opening in that apocalyptic landscape moves into more conventional psychological thriller territory. But it is really the character of Alice that gets under the reader’s skin and keeps you dangling on that narrative hook.
Maybe not to the taste of all Ginger Nuts readers, as it shuns the supernatural and would sit more comfortably on the bookshelf alongside such Assie Noir authors as Jane Harper or Chris Hammer than beside King or Campbell.
But watch out for a late page revelation that truly does earn Radiant Heat a place in in the horror category.
Radiant Heat by Sarah-Jane Collins
When a catastrophic wildfire suddenly rips through a woman’s hometown, she thinks she is lucky to have survived . . . until she finds a dead woman in her driveway, clutching a piece of paper with her name on it. . . .
The blaze came out of nowhere one summer afternoon, a wall of fire fed by blustering wind. Yet, somehow, Alison is alive. She rode out the fire on the damp tiles of her bathroom, her entire body swaddled in a wet woolen blanket. As flames crackled around her, the bitter char of eucalyptus settled in the back of her throat, each breath more desperate than the last.
The wildfire that devastated the Victoria countryside Alison calls home sets in motion a chain of events that threatens to obliterate the carefully constructed life she is living. When Alison emerges from her sheltering place, she spots a soot-covered cherry red car in her driveway, and in it, a dead woman. Alison has never met Simone Arnold in her life . . . or so she thinks. So what is she doing here?
As Alison searches for answers across Australia’s scorched bushlands, she soon learns that the fire isn’t the only threat she’s facing. . . .
Calum Macleod is a former journalist who has worked for newspapers in the Highlands and east of Scotland before moving into third sector communications work.
He has also written and reviewed for Shots magazine and its successor website, Shotsmag.co.uk, Ink magazine, and Sherlock: The Crime Fiction Magazine, where he had a regular column showcasing contemporary authors. He has also been a reader for an independent publisher and the Highland Book Awards.
He and his wife live in his home town of Inverness in the Scottish Highlands with two cats of varying levels of friendliness.