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Lost boy in a land of terror and beauty

  • 25 January 2024
The Sun Walks Down, Allen & Unwin, 2022   Fiona McFarlane is an award-winning Australian writer whose first novel, The Night Guest, was acclaimed for its re-creation of the onset and development of dementia in the 75-year-old protagonist. It won the Voss Literary prize in 2014 and was shortlisted for others. While not every writer can produce short stories as well as longer work, McFarlane excels at both, with short stories appearing in prestigious journals such as The New Yorker. Her debut collection The High Places was lavishly praised, winning the Dylan Thomas Prize in 2017.

One of the marks of talent in a writer is versatility, and over the last decade, McFarlane has demonstrated hers repeatedly. The Night Guest centres on an ageing woman and has a modern beach setting in New South Wales, whereas The Sun Walks Down is about a six-year-old boy who goes missing from a South Australian pioneering community in 1883.

The lost child has been a recurrent trope in Australian art and literature since the early days of European settlement. In 1886, famous Australian painter Frederick McCubbin produced Lost, a deeply moving depiction of a young girl crying, a small and vulnerable figure surrounded by the beautiful but pitiless bush. In 1907 he used the same title for another of his paintings, this time of a boy on the ground with an arm flung across his eyes, enveloped by the seemingly endless bushland.

I am one of many Victorians who read the true story Lost in the Bush at a tender age: it was in the Fourth Book of the Victorian Readers. In the wintry August of 1864 three young children, two boys and a girl, were lost for eight nights and nine days not too far from where my family was living when I was in Grade Four. It haunts me still, this account. The little girl, who was only seven, did her best to look after her brothers, the younger of whom was not then four. The older children took it in turns to carry the youngest. The general public believed the children to be dead, but in the end black trackers found them, weak and emaciated but still alive.

The story taught me, among other things, how easy it is to get lost, and reading McFarlane’s book evoked that same sense of apprehension and unease: she excels at conjuring fear and isolation, ensuring the reader shares