Although set in a fictitious town Amanda Ortlepp’s RUNNING AGAINST THE TIDE takes place in a very recognisable rural South Australia. The small Eyre Peninsula town of Mallee Bay is dominated by the oyster farming industry, local tourism and a sense of community (or the horror of everyone knowing everyone else’s business if you’re reading the book with my a city person’s eyes). Remembering the place fondly from her childhood holidays Erin Travers relocates there with her sons Mike and Ryan when her Sydney life collapses. Mike soon has a job with a neighbour’s oyster farming business and Erin starts to set down new roots with a win in the local art competition and a love interest but youngest son Ryan struggles to fit in at all. When increasingly worrying things start to go wrong for the Travers’ and others in the town suspicions fall easily. But not everybody is what they seem to be.
I am a city girl through and through and would need motivation along the lines of an impending annihilation of all large metropolises to force a move to somewhere as remote as Mallee Bay so could easily have found this book a struggle. Instead though I was quite intrigued by Erin’s story and the way Ortlepp tells it. What went wrong with her marriage? Why take the boys so far from their father? How much does everyone in her life know about all this? Does the town’s resident Lothario have sinister intent with respect to Erin? Is she seeing dead people? And what about the boys? Is each as he appears is one or other of them hiding secrets? Ortlepp does a great job of making the reader question or suspect everything and everyone in the tradition of the best suspense novels.
The setting is an evocative and authentic one. I spent my share of childhood holidays in a town called Coffin Bay which is on the same peninsula as Ortlepp’s fictional creation and I recognised many of the qualities she depicts. We get a sense of the town’s geography, including its heavy reliance on the sea for what it contributes to the local economy, and the people who make up the community. There are several nicely drawn characters who collectively remind us all that we should not rush to judgement based on first impressions. Of course this is in part to keep readers guessing about who to trust but there’s some natural and engaging character development too.
Strictly speaking RUNNING AGAINST THE TIDE is a suspense novel rather than pure crime fiction but it is very readable and does set the heart beating quickly when things get dangerous for multiple characters. I always know I am completely hooked when I have an internal struggle between wanting to read to the end yet wanting to put the book down in case something horrid happens to someone I have come to care about. I suppose it’s the literary equivalent of watching a thrilling movie with your hands partly covering your eyes and it’s a great feeling.
This is the 7th book I’ve read and reviewed for the fifth Australian Women Writers Challenge. For more information about the challenge check out my challenge progress, sign up yourself or browse the Challenge’s database of reviews.
Publisher: Simon & Schuster 
Length: 359 pages