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James McKenzie Watson

A gothic thriller exploring rural Australia’s simultaneous celebration of harsh country and stoic people - a tension that forces its inhabitants to dangerous breaking points.

On a remote property in western NSW, nine-year-old Parker fears that something is wrong with his brain. His desperate attempts to control this internal chaos spark a series of events that gallop from his control in deadly and devastating ways.

Years later, Parker, now a father himself, returns to the bushland he grew up in for a camping trip with old friends. When this reunion descends into chaos amid revelations of unresolved fear, guilt and violence, Parker must finally address the consequences of his childhood actions.


Here are my rules for reading this gripping and quite frankly at times terrifying debut novel: don’t read it late at night unless you have nerves of steel; and don’t read it when you are stranded at some country shack in the middle of nowhere and you can see bunnies hopping around in the paddocks.

Do read this page-turning, clever and heartbreaking novel, however, if you are addicted to Gothic thrillers set in an Australian landscape. Do settle in with this book if you want stories that explore masculinity, childhood and parenting. And do read this book if you relish ghost stories.

James McKenzie Watson’s manuscript for Denizen won the 2021 Penguin Literary Prize, and for good reason. This novel is a good old-fashioned page-turner that could also be read as commentary on the consequences of mental health issues in rural communities – consequences which are shown to be far-reaching and heart- wrenching. (For those who may struggle with content about self harm or depression, please note that trigger warnings should be flagged for bullying, postnatal depression and suicide.)

The novel focuses on Parker; when we meet him, he has just become a young father, but the core of the story begins when he is nine years old and living in western NSW with a mother who struggles with depression. It is only when he revisits this location as an adult that he truly begins to understand the legacy of his childhood.

I didn’t read this book at night. I read it on the tram and then on a park bench with the sun hurting my eyes. I finished reading it on my couch with my dogs curled up on my feet. I devoured it and have considered it many times over on completion. Fundamentally, Denizen is about fear and redemption. These themes make a traditional basis for a story, but McKenzie Watson gives it his own original take. With fear, there is courage; with redemption, there is kindness; and with James McKenzie Watson, you are in capable hands.

Chris Gordon is the community engagement and programming manager at Readings.

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