Published on June 2nd, 2020 | by Zoe Werner
Sticks and Stones Book Review (Advanced Review – 2nd June, 2020) #BantamAustralia @KatherineFirkin @PenguinBooksAus
Summary: “Sticks and Stones” is a fine example of how Firkin has used her many years of experience in various fields of journalism, writing and media to create a riveting debut novel.
Melbourne based journalist, crime and court reporter Katherine Firkin’s “Sticks and Stones”, based in the heart of Melbourne in the current era, follows a series of missing persons cases led by protagonist, Detective Emmett Corban. With dwindling resources and a demotion on the line, Emmett struggles to prioritise which case to follow first, only to find that a number of chilling patterns are beginning to form with each new discovery.
The reader is invited into the perspectives of multiple characters throughout the text and, as each new chapter commences through someone else’s eyes, the reader is left with an increasing longing for answers that seem just out of reach. This gripping, tragic and insightful tale explores some of the most intense aspects of Australian crime, violence against women and the joys and struggles of parenthood.
As Firkin’s debut novel, “Sticks and Stones” does very well to draw the reader in as much as it does whilst also providing a thorough and compelling insight into the vicious cycle of drugs, abuse, neglect, and mental health. Firkin’s experience in covering stories of true Australian crime has given her the tools to present to the reader the complexities and psychological traits of people on both sides of the crime fence. Her exploration of the average but intelligent police officer exposes a great deal of their day-to day duties that most citizens are not often privy to. Her uncanny ability to also unmask the inner workings of a psychotic and heavily damaged criminal brings to light evidence of her first-hand exposure to the grittier side of Australian crime.
The reader is introduced to a lot of characters at a swift pace quite early on. It does become a little tricky to retain interest in these early stages, as only small amounts of detail are revealed about each character. Often, by the time the chapter is over, it becomes a bit too easy to forget who had just been introduced, as suddenly, there is someone new who makes an appearance. This is possibly due to a noticeable lack of physical descriptions of the characters. It is tricky to visualise them as people, as the reader is not presented with details about any of the characters’ outstanding features that would otherwise make them easy to remember and identify. This absence often requires the reader to make that extra effort to go back and re-read early aspects of the novel to remember who is who. Thankfully, this confusion doesn’t continue throughout the whole story.
Detective Emmett Corban seems to slump into the story with an increasing amount of frustration towards his growing pile of cases, matched with dwindling resources and the threat of his department being shut down. It becomes clear to the reader that Emmett has been doing this job for so long that he automatically assumes that most of these cases involve people who disappear not because of anything malicious, but simply because they have become tired of the many displeasing aspects in their lives and simply want to run away. This theory goes out the window when Emmett’s investigation into the disappearance of Natale Gibson reveal shocking patterns that correlate with another case that he had dismissed earlier on. Pair all of this with his struggles to be a good and present husband and father, and it is clear that Firkin has created a real and very relatable character in Emmett.
Emmett’s wife, Cindy, presents as a disheartened mother who is challenged by her husband’s success as she re-enter’s the workforce as a photographer, and Emmett’s long hours at work fuel a steady resentment that Cindy starts to feel towards him. This growing distance is also encouraged by Cindy’s increasingly lustful musings towards her workplace mentor. Cindy’s interest in him and his encouragement of their illicit activities leaves her blinded to the inevitable consequences of what happens when one mixes work with their personal life.
The effectiveness of the shifting perspectives is greater aided by snippets of a journey back in time which explores the childhood of the text’s villain, and how their traumatic beginning in life has contributed to the crime and violence they feel justified in inflicting. These sections of the book, written in italics, are ripe with tiny clues that stand out just enough to allow the reader to recall them as the story goes on.
As the main plot follows a typical linear structure, this sub-plot does a fantastic job of stepping aside from that linear progression. This may act as a brief respite to readers who find the typical “beginning, middle and end” structure difficult to stay invested in, and Firkin has done these transitions very smoothly, gently reminding the reader that there is always something else going on. This approach also assists in preventing a tendency to get complacent with the main plot.
For a debut novel, Firkin has done a wonderful job in creating such a compelling story. The first few chapters, however, do appear to have been written somewhat nervously as some sentences seem a little chunky and not quite as smooth as they could be. There is also evidence of sentence and phrasing inconsistencies which needs revisiting in places, particularly character dialogue. It is possibly not unusual for these irregularities to appear in a debut novel, and it certainly isn’t a huge issue as it doesn’t put a stop to the mystery of the story, and the remainder of the text doesn’t take too long to settle into a steady pace which flows nicely.
“Sticks and Stones” is a fine example of how Firkin has used her many years of experience in various fields of journalism, writing and media to create a riveting debut novel. Whilst there appears to be some hesitation and nervousness early on, Firkin’s ability to delve into the minds of so many characters through shifting perspectives is deliciously captivating and easily leads the reader on a journey that excites, enthrals and devastates. “Sticks and Stones” has a solid structure and a great deal of technical merit for a debut that has been written in such a way that keeps the reader captivated and keen to seek answers. This story is sure to be the first of many compelling tales created by Firkin, and the inevitable success of this text is a look ahead into what promises to be an exciting journey to follow.