Book review: Gemini Falls by Sean Wilson

(courtesy Affirm Press)

Copy provided for review by NetGalley

For a species that embraces the certainty of rules, regulations and dogma, we are also invariably in love with the idea of mystery, with the sense that for all the things we know about the world, there are a great many things we do not.

These tantalising unknowns sit just out of reach of what we can see and touch, their seductive potential often too great to resist even at personal risk, or injunctions to leave them alone.

There is often a good reason why we shouldn’t go near them, something that thirteen-year-old Morris Turner discovers when, one day in 1930, he overhears his father, a police detective, being assigned to the case of a murdered young woman in the town of Gemini where she’s been discovered, exposed and debased, at the entrance to a mine shaft.

It’s this conversation that begins the immersively meaningful delight that is Gemini Falls, a novel to which author Sean Wilson, a playwright for whom this is his first book, brings a wondrous sense of the bountiful mysteries and possibilities of life, but also a sage understanding that where there is mystery there can also be sorrow and great loss.

Of course, Morris, who brings a love of astronomy and not inconsiderable anxiety, with him to Gemini at the foot of the Victorian mountains, when he travels there for the summer with his older sister Lottie and his taciturn but loving father who’s still grieving the death of his wife, and the kids’ mother, in circumstances he refuses to discuss, is only just beginning to discover to be the case.

Flo leads us to a house off the main street. We drop our bicycles near the fence. Outside the house, in the well-watered garden, there are marigolds and poppies and petunias. There’s a bottlebrush tree, looming over it all. Lottie strides to the front door and knocks three times. A stout woman in a white apron opens the door.

‘Florence,’ she says. ‘How did I know it was you?’

‘Must be my confident knock, Missus Napier,’ Flo says, holding her chin high.

‘That must be it,’ Mrs Napier says. “Will you be needing my Sam, will you?’

‘I will be,’ Flo says. We will be. This here is my cousin, Morris. His dad is here to solve the murder.’

Anxious though he is, he agrees to his cousin Flo’s plan to investigate the murder of Catherine Fletcher – she also ropes in the mayor’s son Sam who has dreams of a thespian life outside of Gemini; his need to eventually leave places him in a group of characters who, in stark of contrast to many townspeople who are happy to stay, or have no way to leave, can’t wait to see what lies out there in the world – in a Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew investigation that seems, at first, to be all fun and no consequence.

Of course, life often comes with serious consequences, especially when you are dabbling in a real life murder in a town riven by dissension and anger at the unemployed people in a camp on the edge of town who are seen as freeloaders and no-hopers by some of the less empathetic citizens, a lesson Morris learns the hard way by the end of Gemini Falls.

That’s not to say he loses his boyish enthusiasm, tempered by his always attendant anxiety, but it is changed into something more knowing, more cognisant of the fact that while there are mysteries aplenty in this life – for him, the prevailing one is not discovering who murdered Catherine but what happened to his mother years later and why they are forbidden from talking about her as a family – delving into them is not always as lighthearted and fun as he, or Flo, who is perhaps the most changed of them all, had supposed.

(courtesy Affirm Press)

Set in a time when deprivation is everywhere and we see the very worst and the very best of people – the bigotry towards people who are trapped in homeless poverty through no fault of their own is confronting in its nakedly unthinking hatred with Wilson bringing it horrifying to life even as he leavens it with those, like Morris’s father Jude who stand on the side of the angels – Gemini Falls is a serious novel with a great deal to explore.

Beyond what happened to Catherine Fletcher, a lingering mystery which causes no end of combative angst in a town unsure whom to trust anymore, an fear-laced state of mind encouraged by economic hardship and social malaise, and why no one speaks of Morris’s mother, there is the lingering whispers of why Jude left Gemini in the first place.

As Gemini Falls unfurls in ways thoughtfully intense, emotionally fraught and lightheartedly fun – for much of the time, until things get desperately serious, Morris, Flo and Sam, are allowed to be just be kids, adding an endearingly rambunctious element and some comedic sass to what is in almost every other regard, an intense storyline – and secrets of all kinds are exposed, and lives laid bare, a lot of growing up is done and the idea that mysteries are something otherworldly and magical is manifestly and irrevocably put to rest.

All I can hear is the ringing of the cicadas and the sound of father’s breath. Nobody moves. We could stay this way until the end of the world, until weeds grow through the floorboards, until the trees break through the walls, until the stars blink off in the sky and everything grows dark and close.

And then Father breaks through. Time starts again. He lifts a hand and strikes the table with his palm. Silverware falls to the floor.

‘Get out,’ he says.

For all of its intensity, and the social dislocation and disruption at its heart, Gemini Falls is also about the closeness of belonging, of how you can be from somewhere and not really belong there anymore, even if it’s been your home all your life, or you can be intimately part of an adopted community who envelop you as their own.

This is felt most profoundly at the end of Gemini Falls, and no, there are no spoilers in play here, when Morris, Lottie and Jude return home, case solved and lives changed for better or worse, and are immediately re-embraced by the suburb in which they live as if they’d never left in the first place.

It’s a powerful message that once we have our people and our place, we have our people, no matter what might crop up to challenge that or take us away from it, and so, while the time Morris and his family spend in Gemini makes a sizably impactful impact on their day-to-day life that changes them all individually and as a family, they know they have a place where they belong – to each other and to others – and where they are loved and accepted without condition.

Gemini Falls is an arduously intense story in many respects, going deep into what happens to people and society as a whole when a great stressor like the Great Depression tips the status quo on its head, and how that can place untold stress on people and places already struggling with secrets, impetuses and impulses that cannot see the light of day, but it is also a love letter to family and belonging and how even when the worst of things happen to us, when we have somewhere to belong and people to belong to, we can survive anything, even when everything changes and there’s a little less mystery left in the world.

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