Title: The Far-Back Country
Author: Kate Lyons
Genre: Literary Fiction, Mystery
Publisher: Allen and Unwin
Published: 27th June 2018
Synopsis: A superbly written and compelling novel about the bonds of family and home set against the outback landscape.
In 1979, at the age of fourteen, Ray McCullough ran away from his home on a western New South Wales sheep property following a violent confrontation with his dad, Jim McCullough. He left behind his mother, Delly, and his sisters, Ursula and Tilda.
Now forty-one, Ray works as an itinerant cook and labourer across the remote outback. A practical man in love with history and landscape, Ray leads a solitary life, convinced he’s inherited Jim’s streak of violence. Ray has spent his life running away from memories of family and home.
When the body of a man is found in a country pub along with Ray’s identification, Ursula believes that she can finally lay to rest the search that has defined most of her adult life. After Ursula collects Ray’s belongings, she begins to follow the tracks left by Ray across the far-back country, each one leading her closer to understanding the man he became and why he disappeared all those years ago.
The Far-Back Country is an extraordinary story about memory, mistaken identity, false knowledge and how the idea of family can define us.
Ray McCullough has spent most of his life as an itinerant worker, going from job to job, and town to town, after running away from home at the age of fourteen in 1979. For most of his life, he has lived alone, afraid his father’s violent streak lives on in him. Twenty-seven years later, his sisters, Ursula and Tilda have come to see if a body found in a country pub is him – his identification is on the body, and the police need to know if it is him – and this sets in motion a string of events that move backwards and forwards between Ray and Ursula as Ray tries to escape his past, and Ursula continues her search for him, and for the truth of where he is, where he has been and what happened to him.
For years, it has been a mystery, and the early 2000s story is peppered with memories of their childhoods, and what led to their departures from the family home, and the splitting of their family across country NSW. Family secrets abound in this story, and are more often than not subtly hinted at, and not wholly revealed. Clues are instead dropped for the reader to discover what is going on for themselves as they read.
Ray’s journey begins in December 2006, and Ursula’s in June 2007 – after that, their chapters alternate and whilst there is some overlap with the people they meet, because each chapter is written with a six month distance depending on the character arc being told, they are never in the same place at the same time, but they meet and interact with the same people as Ray gets further and further away from his family, and Ursula finds herself getting closer to finding him and finally uncovering and putting long-forgotten and long hidden family secrets to rest.
Because of this style, the story meanders a little through country NSW but is no less interesting – it did take me while to realise how Ray and Ursula’s stories were written, and the timeline, but there was one scene near the middle that made sense and helped to cement my initial thoughts about the way it had been structured and confirmed the settings of each character. Ray, whilst still on his solitary journey, makes an effort to find Ursula and connect with her, only to find she isn’t where he thought she was. And so, as the brother and sister appear to keep missing each other, the mystery deepens throughout the novel.
The intriguing story of Ray and Ursula’s relationship ebbs and flows, and the truth is slowly revealed, though perhaps not really confirmed, adds to the mystery and secretive realm that their family has lived in for many years. It is also a novel about how family can define us, and who we are – and how we separate this from our sense of self. With the mistaken identity of the body at the start, Ray can fashion a new life for himself, yet his sister is determined to track him down and find answers.
A strange, yet intriguing read that sparked more questions than answers, but is at the same time a fresh mystery that takes a family on a journey they didn’t expect.