Although I’ve seen my fair share of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, I’ve never been much of a crime buff. I’m not a murderino, or a person who subsists on true crime podcasts. In fact, prior to picking up Shelter – Catherine Jinks’ latest work of crime fiction – I’d barely dipped my toes into the genre. I was delighted by what I found.
Shelter has the drawn-out tension of a horror story and the intuitive narrator of a mystery. Meg lives on an isolated property in the bush – the perfect place to hide Nerine, a young mother, and her two children, on the run from a violent partner. But soon after their arrival, the atmosphere changes. There are strange noises during the night, invisible threats lurking in the undergrowth. And it only increases Meg’s and Nerine’s anxiety.
Small, cramped spaces work a treat for thrillers, and Meg’s home is no exception. Confined to the house and backyard, her guests become claustrophobic and anxious. Nerine in particular is a humming ball of nervous energy, her movements wild and unpredictable. Jinks handles the tension beautifully, letting it rise in staccato bursts before falling into an unsteady heartbeat; we catch our breath, but the uneasiness never fully evaporates. Just beyond the house is the Australian bush, which Jinks captures in all its harsh beauty. Meg’s backyard is covered in trees and blue flax lilies, but it’s also scrubby in patches. Should you need to run, there’s nowhere to hide – unless you know the lay of the land.
I dove into Shelter expecting a crime drama that had little bearing on the real world. I thought I would see larger-than-life antagonists committing crimes that were so spectacular, they couldn’t conceivably happen in day-to-day life. But Jinks’ novel makes some pertinent observations about domestic violence, and how the shadows of abusers can linger for years afterwards. Both Meg and Nerine are survivors, with their abusive ex-husbands – Keith and Duncan – still on the loose. For much of the novel, the prevailing dramatic question is: which one is tormenting them from the darkness? The men are invisible, but their emotional presence is tangible, sustained by fear and helplessness.
Because of this, Shelter is the first novel in a long time that’s made me feel tight in the chest. At first, the fuss of the unfolding drama is exciting. Mysterious noises in the dark are like the early scares in a horror movie; the pleasant ones that get your adrenaline going. But soon enough, genuine fear creeps in. Jinks lets her narrative unravel so subtly that before you know it there’s a knot of dread sitting just above your lungs. It’s a breathtaking experience.
But the novel isn’t unsettling all the way through. Like all good stories, there are moments of light and shade – with the former coming from Jinks’ cast of background characters. Tearle, an eccentric lawyer who collects antiques – including gloriously pointless epergnes – is a favourite of mine. His presence across the book is nothing short of delightful.
The real star of the show, however, is Meg, Shelter’s humble narrator. I was moved by the extent of her bravery; despite still healing from her own trauma, she chooses to harbour a frightened mother and her two children – at great risk to her personal safety. She’s also a character with her own unique flaws and human fallibility. Meg is only partially equipped to handle Nerine’s needs, and her gentle demeanour often clashes with her guest’s manic energy. But even when she’s convinced Nerine’s anxiety is bordering on the point of paranoia, Meg responds with care and respect. Her compassion is astounding.
Something else I appreciated about Shelter is its glimpses into the many faces of domestic abuse. As we see through flashbacks of Meg’s time with Keith, not all violence is physical. Sometimes it can take the form of coercion and emotional manipulation – manoeuvres that Keith employs to keep Meg under his control. If there are readers who find his behaviour familiar, I hope they recognise it for what it is – abuse.
Shelter is perfect for crime enthusiasts, as well as readers new to the genre. Within its opening pages, Catherine Jinks will have you in her grip. Keep your eyes peeled also for her next crime release, The Attack, scheduled to be published at the end of August.
If this review has raised issues for you or someone you know, contact the national sexual assault, family and domestic violence counselling service – 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732).
Reviewed by Melina Bunting, The Book Bird’s guest book reviewer.