Chris Hammer, Treasure and Dirt

The first thing I did when NSW’s lockdown 2.0 finished was head to a store that sold books. I couldn’t help it. I needed to stand and just look at all the titles and flick through the pages, weighing each tome and wondering what surprises it held inside. I didn’t have much time because there was so much else to do, but I quickly chose seven books, embraced them and raced to the check out. My selection covered multiple genres – some of my favourite authors, a few new ones and some unknowns. Four days has passed since then and I’m worried that seven wasn’t enough … I’ve read two already… devoured them simply as though ‘freedom’ has somehow given me space and time to revel in reading. Which makes no sense at all because the one thing I did lots of during lockdown was read. But there was something truly liberating about being able to handle these books that I had chosen off filled shelves in an open store surrounded by other people also perusing titles.

So, Chris Hammer. What can I say… this was not my first foray into his work. Although I don’t generally enjoy Australian fiction, I loved Hammer’s earlier book Scrublands, appreciating his keen sense of place and his well formed, complex characters. I was quite certain that his newest book, Treasure & Dirt, wouldn’t disappoint.

And of course, it didn’t.

Treasure & Dirt transported me to outback Australia. Despite the repeated descriptions of an arid, barren land, I was never bored. Each new image added something to my appreciation of this grand country. I felt rather than saw the earth. It’s hard to explain but Hammer has a specific way of leading a reader to see the place as a significant character in his narrative. It’s quite striking but I truly feel that I ‘know’ Finnigan’s Gap in the same way that I know the characters Ivan and Nell. I empathise with them equally …

I loved the interplay between the spaces that Hammer presents. We start underground, in the prologue, literally descending into the earth to witness the results of a crime in the bowels of a mine and then we are catapulted to the view from a plane in the sky which seems to be “inviting inscription”, a “great expanse of the interior … where the land is flat and forever, too far inland for the rains to persist.” Through the eyes of our protagonist, a detective called Ivan, this view is reminiscent “of Aboriginal paintings, the land from above, imbued with spirit, replete with hidden meanings, of unspoken significance. For a moment, the magic of it resonates within him, the magnitude.” But then, reminded of his position – “he’s a policeman, not a philosopher” after all – “He shakes off the idea … There is a job to be done. There’s nothing special to be read in the landscape; painting it a different colour doesn’t alter its essential emptiness.” And then in the space in between, on the ground – the heat “is ferocious. The sun is almost directly overhead, pouring its unfiltered energy into the rocks and gravel, with little or no vegetation to diffuse it. Such is its power that the metal framework at the top of the shaft” burns their hands as they move passed the rungs of the ladder.

There is something very powerful about the way these spaces intersect and I’ve had to reconsider the action of the story based upon where it occurs. Hammer has cleverly used place to change the tone of even conversations – their intimacy either heightened or lessened depending upon where they take place. The layers highlight the book’s underlying theme which revolves around secrets, what is plain to see and all that remains hidden or buried.

I won’t give anything away about the plot because the book really is worth reading just for that alone. What I will say is that Hammer has given me a new appreciation of the challenges that many Australians face when trying to work the land. It is something that we can easily forget when living in the city and I think that part of the magic of Hammer’s work is that he pays homage to that in a thoughtful way.

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