#SheReviews Wake by Shelley Burr

August 4, 2022

Distressingly and alarmingly, some 35 000 people ‘go missing’ in Australia every year, as reported by the Australian Federal Police. Although the vast majority of these folk are located within a six month time frame, approximately 1600 of these much-loved humans form the unenviable bond of being ‘long-term missing’.

Such a longed-for and cherished missing person is nine year old Evelyn McCreery, a daughter, sister and vibrant spirit who disappeared, presumed abducted, one night, from the McCreery’s expansive and then prosperous sheep farm outside the (fictional) town of Nannine in Central New South Wales, in 1999. Evelyn’s disappearance is the nightmarish, gut-wrenching and forever echoing backdrop to Australian author, Shelley Burr’s, brilliant debut novel, “Wake”.

In this forensically well-written novel, the narrative deftly explores the timeline that takes place late in the summer of 2018.

At the time the novel is set, twenty-eight year old Mina McCreery (Evelyn’s twin sister who was sharing a bedroom with Evelyn the night she inexplicably vanished from the McCleerys’ lives) is living a far-reachingly reclusive life alone on the family farm, managing the property capably and comprehensively despite her affliction with anxiety. The McCleerys, their farm, Nannine and the seemingly endless tarnished and desolate stretches of land around this unforgiving area, have all seen far better days. Liam, Evelyn and Mina’s father, who is currently travelling up north, has had to destock the farm from sheep, the farm now growing sorghum and wheat. Beverley, the stern and formidable family matriarch, who expertly brought much-needed national attention to Evelyn’s abduction by writing a book, having book tours, giving many interviews, including media appearances, and writing a blog, has since passed away from cancer. 

Dark, menacing storm clouds have sat unsteadily over the McCreery family, indeed also over Nannine and surrounds, for the past nineteen years. Cherise, from the real estate business in Nannine, declares “There isn’t anyone in this town who isn’t related to someone who worked at the McCreery’s. They were Nannine’s biggest employer, until they closed it down a few years after……you know”.

When highly driven, energetic and well-researched private investigator, Lane Holland, rolls like a fiercely perpetuating gust of dry, unwieldy wind into town, wanting to give the darkly perceived cold case another look (he is also pretty keen on getting his eager hands on the two million dollar reward up for offer to anyone who solves the case, and disturbingly, his other motive for taking on the case is a clandestinely murky one at best).

When Mina, who is defiantly prickly and wary of people, particularly ‘outsiders’ ‘snooping’ around, doesn’t extend to Lane the effusive welcome he had been hoping for, it looks like Lane’s ebullient efforts to restore “peace” to the family may be thwarted before they have begun. 

Is Lane, forever an outsider, despite his overt and deliberate attempts to lever his way into the lives of the stoic and dependable (or are they?) townsfolk, a positive for the case, a hindrance or even an unrelenting threat?

Is Nannine’s policewoman, Sergeant Starrett (who at the time of Evelyn’s disappearance worked the case, being a young Senior Constable), been as thorough in following leads for the case as one would hope? Is her vehement distrust of Lane well placed?

Why was Beveley so disconcertingly calm when she phoned the police to report Evelyn missing? Did Mina tell the police the truth about what she saw and heard the night that Evelyn disappeared? Was every albi of those interviewed sound? Was Sergeant Starrett as thorough and methodical in working the case as she should have been?

Why did was there such a distinct “lack of evidence at the McCreery crime scene. No DNA, no fingerprints (?)” Is there a tenuous, maybe even sturdy, link between Evelyn’s disappearance and the disappearance of Mina’s friend Alanna’s sister, Christa years later?

“Wake” meaningfully exhibits Shelley’s soaring skills as a writer. Her intelligence, powers of observation and insight permeate every page of this unique novel, stridently holding the reader’s attention from the first well-crafted word to the last. Not only is this novel masterfully written in terms of character development and classy narrative, the landscape scenes are all-encompassingly evocative of the harshness of this land so many try to clear and ‘conquer’, sometimes to their detriment.

I simply couldn’t fault “Wake” as a stellar and prominently quality work of fiction. Congratulations Shelley, you have raised the bar for writers, not just of the crime genre and not just Australian writers, but worldwide. I loved this novel, and can’t wait to see what Shelley writes next. 

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