by Kate Forsyth
Published by Random House Australia
Genres: Fiction, Thrillers
“Augusto always peppered his speech with Spanish when he cooked, although he had not set foot on Spanish soil since he was born. ‘The secret with zarzuela is the sweetness. Cinnamon, saffron, sweet paprika, bay leaves. Sweet and salty the zarzuela, like the sea, like pasión.’”
I’m a huge sucker for books where food plays an important part! I’m also a big fan of books with a powerful sense of place. This book has both, along with family dysfunction, a murder mystery, and fairytale echoes.
Sara is traumatised and fragile, with severe anxiety attacks and agoraphobia. A self-described shut-in, she is haunted by images of her mother dying in car crash, and scarred by her father’s neglect. She keeps house on the family’s oceanside farm at Narooma on the south coast of New South Wales. Sara is interminably cleaning up after her three brothers and her teenage half-sister. She reads her grandmother’s tarot cards, buries herself in romance novels, and dreams of the ocean.
“The Sanchez family had always lived by the sea. Augusto boasted the blood of Andalusian pirates flowed in their veins. Sara’s earliest memories were of sea-sparkle, sea-slither. She liked to lie at the very edge of the water, translucent waves running cold, delicate fingers all over her body. She liked to float on her stomach, her face below the water, watching her shadow darken the world below, like a cyclone moving in. She liked to twist and writhe through the water, legs pressed together, pretending she was a mermaid like La Sirenita in the story her grandmother used to tell, who lived in the depths of the clear blue sea, deeper than a hundred church steeples all stacked one on top of another.”
One night, Sara’s father Augusto is late home. A delayed search finds him barely alive hanging off a cliff. Did he fall, or was he pushed?
Over the next few days, the mystery unfolds – with the family somehow treating it as a murder rather than an attempted murder, adding to the atmosphere of oncoming doom. We slowly wend through this present-day riddle while Sara’s family’s past is unraveled in the gaps.
Augusto, Sara’s father, is a painter and a brute. He is a drunk, misogynist, abusive, neglectful cheater. He is contemptuous of Sara’s art, because he feels you need to “live” before you can be an artist – drink, fuck, and above all go out of the house. Sara’s eldest brother is trying to keep the farm going in an area that is moving toward tourism rather than farming, but her twin brothers and half-sister are angry and rebellious. Their neighbouring maternal uncle holds the mortgage over the farm, and he hates and resents Augusto for inheriting it. So plenty of people have a motivation for trying to kill Augusto…
I love the way that Dancing on Knives is about how the most ‘fragile’ person can be the only one holding things together. The book is thoroughly food-infused (and definitely needs a recipe glossary!). Others have critiqued it for its gently moseying pace. Sure, it’s not a driving thriller, but you don’t read a Forsyth for the page-turniness. It is less a speedboat ride and more a paddle-steamer meander through a sublime, dark forest. With Spanish food.
“That was the ghost of her grandmother, Consuelo Sanchez, whose roast goose cooked with pears could make grown men tremble. ‘A stick of cinnamon is the secret,’ Consuelo would tell Sara, standing at the end of the bed, a hunched little figure in black, a shadow among shadows.
The ghost of Consuelo Sanchez was always full of advice for her soft little grand-daughter. ‘Thyme is best for courage,’ Consuelo told her. ‘Make a cup of thyme tea with honey, that’ll help make you brave. Or wear a sprig of it in your hair, so you can smell it.’
Or she would say, ‘Never fear, querida, the pain will pass in time. Time heals all wounds.'”
Content notes for domestic violence, sexual assault, murder (obv), ableism, vivid descriptions of anxiety & panic attacks.
I received a galley of this book from Netgalley in return for an honest review.