Kirsten Alexander's Riptides is a fascinating book that forces readers to take sides

Riptides opens with a car accident in which a pregnant woman dies.

The responsible driver and his passenger flee the scene, and do not tell anyone what they have done.

The novel spins around this pivotal incident, going slightly back in time before the crash, and into the months after it takes place.

The book is set in mid-1970s Queensland, and Alexander recreates the time and place vividly; floods, police corruption, communes, suburban family life, the reports of Cyclone Tracy on the news.

Further afield, one of the main characters has been living in Bali, and he is part of the growing commercialisation occurring there.

The writer has a real talent for both description and dialogue, and the book is told in two main voices in absorbing and energetic prose.

The callous act of leaving the dead woman and taking no public responsibility for her death makes it difficult to sympathise with the two main characters; the changes wrought in their lives seem trivial in comparison with the death.

We learn more of the woman who died through the voices of people who knew her, but her loss is brought home by the fact that she only exists in the words of others.

A vital piece of evidence that would link the perpetrators to the crime committed exists.

Personally, I found myself hoping that the police would locate this evidence, so that the main characters, Abby and Charlie, would be forced to publicly account for their actions.

Meanwhile, other, corrupt elements in the police are happy to turn a blind eye to the death, on certain conditions.

Readers will find themselves taking sides as the novel develops, and it is to the credit of the author that the discovery - or non-discovery - of the truth behind the accident is made to matter so much.

Anger, and even disgust, seem appropriate responses to the initial actions of Abby and Charlie.

Whether these feelings are modified through a greater understanding of their lives before and after the accident lies at the heart of the novel.

The dead woman's remaining child, and his need for a new home, adds another level of moral complexity to the narrative.

Kirsten Alexander tackles questions of responsibility, dishonesty and the possibility of atonement and redemption in this fascinating book.

You may be infuriated by the main characters, but you will return again and again to the issues raised by the novel after finishing it. Riptides is inescapably engaging.

  • Penelope Cottier writes poetry as PS Cottier.
  • Riptides, by Kirsten Alexander. Bantam. $32.99.
This story Gripping story with moral dilemma at its centre first appeared on The Canberra Times.