I read Tess Evans’s first and third novels The Book of Lost Threads and Mercy Street and really enjoyed both. Her latest, The Ballad of Banjo Crossing, further cements her as an Australian writer who delivers books with substance, complexity and sensitivity.
Mardi, whose husband Tom died five years ago, has two children, Will, eleven and Sukey, six. She feels she is seen in the small country town as ‘poor Tom’s widow. Or Tom’s poor widow’, and sometimes wants to escape, but Banjo Crossing is her home.
Jack comes there looking for a place ‘where no-one knew him. Knew who, what, he was. He’d stay here a while but if he couldn’t find work, he’d have to move on’.
They meet at Mardi’s café and he becomes a regular. Then they find they both run for pleasure. ‘When he told Mardi that he understood the idea of running as an escape, he had brushed aside the thought that his own flight was mainly from himself’. When they run together their ‘interchange was uncomplicated and fraternal and immensely liberating’. As small communities do, the townspeople all see the blossoming relationship, even while they are denying it is developing.
They work on the local poetry competition and festival together and Jack finds he is more invested in the town than he thought he would be. Then a man and a woman arrive in town with a mysterious agenda. When the truth comes out the community is divided and the respective sides band together to fight for what they believe in.
Other characters flesh out the story like Mrs Compton-Ballard who forget things occasionally but has a determined spirit, her son Peter who left the town many years ago leaving unfinished business between him and Mardi but returns to join the crusade, poor Susan Compton who had waited ‘hand and foot on her mother, she hadn’t lived her own life for years’, the ‘heavy hand of Ray Silverstone’ the ‘town strongman’ who ‘manipulated the strings of myriad puppets with the finesse of a master’, Sean Ferguson who is dying of cancer and his wife Donna who will be left with the burden of the farm and their young children. ‘This was a town that carried its wounded — Mrs Compton- Ballard, Sean and Donna Ferguson, even Mardi Lawrence, although she probably wouldn’t acknowledge it’.
The book raises issues such as the environment versus business and jobs, the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes and knowing what it’s like to ‘have a secret you can’t share with anyone’. It is a story of ‘the great uniting spirit demonstrated by those who set out to save their town. But where there are winners, there are also losers’.
Tess Evans has written another great novel with heart and depth. If you haven’t read her books give this and her others a go.