Dustfall, the debut novel of Western Australian writer, Michelle Johnston, kept me riveted from beginning to end.
I first heard about this author and her book at the end of last year and couldn’t wait to read it. Michelle Johnston roused my curiosity in several ways. I knew the initial inspiration for this book came from a visit in 1991 to the derelict hospital in the ghost-town of Wittenoom. The town fascinated after my stint as a community nurse at Jigalong in the Pilbara region of Western Australia. I spent a night at the Fortescue Hotel (mentioned in the book) in Witternoom in November 1991. The hotel closed soon afterwards.
As well, I was keen to discover how another Perth medical doctor-turned-writer would approach her first novel. (You can read about recent books by Dr Louise Allan here and Dr Dawn Barker here.)
The author says of her book,
Although inspired by the true history of the asbestos mines of Wittenoom, much has been modified in the crafting of the novel. Time, in particular, has been stretched and pulled around like toffee.
Dustfall recounts the stories of two doctors who arrive in Wittenoom following mishaps which may have led to the deaths of their patients. Raymond Filigree, who takes up an appointment there in 1966, arrives from England. He discovers an ill equipped outpost hospital with a history of staff instability.
Lou Fitzgerald arrives in the town when she flees from Port Hedland, a few hours’ drive away. Their stories include accounts of the responsibilities dumped on junior hospital doctors and how institutions can fail to support them.
At first I found the stories of the protagonists in alternating chapters somewhat tedious. Before long, however, I realised that the clever structure of parallel stories allowed each to spark off the other in unexpected ways. The stories are full of intrigue, and Michelle Johnston leaves the reader longing to discover more at the end of the chapters.
The novel tells of hardship, immigration and corporate irresponsibility. There are stories of fire and explosion. We read about death and deprivation; of pain and suffering and, finally, of love and redemption.
A once thriving town, Wittenoom carries the horrendous burden of asbestos mining. The ever-present lethal dust billows over the town. Tailings from the mines spread liberally to make paths and playgrounds form the backdrop of residents’ lives. Unacknowledged deaths from asbestosis and mesothelioma of miners and their families cast deep shadows over the history of Western Australia.
Those of us old enough to remember what happened in that town will be appalled again by the stories Michelle Johnson tells about the mines, miners and the companies, who not only turned a blind eye to disasters, but who also denied they had occurred.
I had forgotten, until I read about them in Dustfall, the heroic work of Drs Saint and McNulty, who tried desperately to improve the health of mine workers at Wittenoom These eminent doctors worked in Perth during my training days as a nurse at Royal Perth Hospital in the 1950s.
While some of the minor characters in Dustfall appear shadowy and flat, the protagonists and other major characters are fully rounded. In a sense, the beleaguered town portrayed by Michelle Johnston itself becomes a character. I cared, deeply, about their lives and what would happen to them.
In spite of the dark themes that run through this novel, I thoroughly recommend Dustfall to people interested in the recent social and health history of Western Australia. People who like love stories and mysteries will also enjoy it. And finally, it would make a good book club choice.
Publication details of Dustfall
EXTENT: 304 pages
SIZE: 210 (h) x 135 (w) mm
This review is my second for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2018. You might also like these reviews of books by two other Australian women writers. Dawn Barker’s Let her go. Joan London’s The Golden Age
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