Catherine Jinks has demonstrated her versatility as a writer in the more than 40 books for children, young adults and adults published over her career so far. There are good reasons why she’s been garlanded with numerous awards, too: she’s a masterful storyteller, able to easily carry the narrative exigences of plot and character regardless of genre. Indeed, Jinks seems just as comfortable penning picture books as she is with mapping the terrain of vicious killers. Her previous adult offering, Shepherd, was a historical fiction about Australia’s colonial frontier, a brutal outback horror, full of machismo and violence. Shelter, too, is about the hunter and the hunted. There’s an easy segue from 19th century convicts to manipulative rogues in a more contemporary setting; this latest novel is also a thriller that’s as frenetic and unstable as an irregular heartbeat.
Jinks drops us right in the action with little preamble. Meg, who lives in an isolated New South Wales bush homestead, is part of a secret network of domestic abuse survivors scattered around the country, who necessarily communicate with one another with vigilance and stealth. She takes in a desperate stranger, Nerine, and her two young daughters. After an unfavourable ruling in the family court in favour of her ex-husband, Duncan, Nerine refused to share custody and took the kids and ran. She is bloodshot-eyed tense and volatile, and both children show signs of trauma. Meg knows very well what it’s like to be cowed by a former partner and has deep sympathy for the younger woman, who’s not much older than her own 27-year-old daughter. Chilling words of inclusion are muttered: Nerine belongs to a club no one wants to be a member of. “She’s one of us.”
Meg’s ridge-top acreage is unprepossessing, but the “scrubby, undernourished land” she pointedly calls her “bolt hole” is also secluded, and for the time being it’s an ideal refuge until another accommodation becomes available for Nerine. Soon, however, it seems as though their fortress has been penetrated. But by whom?
Shelter is not easy to read, as it explores various facets of violence, but as a potboiler it's effective
Narrated in the first person by Meg, the prose is unadorned, pragmatic in style rather than decorative. There’s certainly nothing pretty for the eye to rest on to distract us from the propulsive plotting. Jinks keeps her descriptive flourishes minimal so when she does employ them, the language is as arresting as a slap: a face is “flinty, savage and clenched, like a fist”; within a body “something strange and dark had flowered inside”; the capricious Nerine moved “like a lizard, darting and twitching. Her pale eyes had no depth.”
Even though Meg’s divorce was years ago she’s still harassed by her ex-husband, Keith, and the book works on this twin narrative of both women sharing and escaping a broken past. Shelter underscores the emotional fallout, not only of physical abuse, but of the equally damaging gaslighting behaviours of provocation, insults and belittlement. It brings to mind Jess Hill’s book about power, control and domestic violence: See What You Made Me Do. Indeed, Meg’s daughter, Emily, was driven to move to England to avoid the toxicity of her warring parents. At a safe distance, she continues to castigate her father for his mistreatment of her, but equally damning, also blames her mother for not stopping his continual and deliberate cruelty. Sometimes, as Meg’s lawyer friend opines, the threat is as good as the act itself, and Keith had been expert at generating fear, “fear of blame, fear of failure, fear of retribution”. Before she realised the destruction he wielded and planned her escape accordingly, Meg was “pinned to his life like a dead butterfly”.
Instead of calming Nerine down, Meg is infected by her paranoia and fear and because Shelter is a thriller, there is a twist; several twists in fact, that will trip readers who believe they know exactly where the story is heading. It’s not giving anything away to say that Meg duly realises she’s not just in trouble, but in danger.
In terms of subject matter, the novel is not easy to read as it explores various facets of violence: generationally passed down a tainted bloodline, committed against the vulnerable and enacted upon animals. However, as a potboiler it’s effective. Jinks knows how to dole out the tension, letting the suspense slacken and then ramping up the terror lest you become complacent for a few minutes. She eschews the temptation to tidy everything up; there are deliberate threads left dangling by the end.
With the following unremarkable elements, the author creates a potent brew: two women, two preschoolers, two ex-partners, an elderly golden retriever, anonymous phone calls, wind chimes on the verandah, roosting chickens, hair dye, an axe and a gun. Shelter is the result of swirls of dull colour interspersed with bright shocks.