The Newcomer by Laura Elizabeth Woollett
When Judy Novak’s daughter, Paulina, doesn’t show up for lunch, it doesn’t mean anything but further frustration for Judy, who is used to her daughter’s failings. Later, after Judy has called and called, after she has stood in Paulina’s empty house and looked through her belongings, after she has turned to Paulina’s quirky but kind landlady for help, Judy is forced to admit that something is wrong. When Paulina’s body is found, Judy is devastated, but not surprised – she’s finally done it. Paulina has killed herself. Except Paulina hasn’t killed herself, and in a small community like the one on Fairfolk Island, there aren’t that many people who could have killed her.
While The Newcomer hits plenty of the beats that make for a juicy crime narrative, the novel also examines themes of gendered stereotypes and violence against women that author Laura Elizabeth Woollett has explored in her previous works Beautiful Revolutionary and The Love of a Bad Man. Living or dead, Paulina isn’t a character who is easy to sympathise with, or even like. Woollett deliberately plays on aspects of the character’s language and behaviour to set her up as an obvious ‘target’ in some people’s eyes – even before she moves to Fairfolk Island, Paulina drinks too much and is promiscuous in a way that her friends disapprove of. On the island, Paulina is immediately branded a ‘mainie’ and isolated from the community. She is brassy and messy – the kind of girl who would serve as a cautionary tale of how young women shouldn’t behave if they want to stay ‘safe’.
Woollett uses Paulina and all the things that happen to her – and there are many heartbreaking ways she is let down – to take aim at the systems that turn a blind eye to violence against women. The Newcomer is an entertaining and powerful read.