Author: Laura Elizabeth Wollett
First Published: 02 July 2021
“People destroy other people for no reason.”
I will start by saying that I was given an ARC copy in exchange for an honest review. These opinions are my own. Thank you so much to wonderful people at Scribe for sending a copy my way!
There’s no such thing as a perfect victim.
In a hotel room on a sleepy Pacific island, Judy Novak waits. And worries. It isn’t the first time 29-year-old problem child Paulina has kept her mother waiting. But Judy can’t ignore the island’s jagged cliffs and towering pines — or the dread that Paulina has finally acted on her threats to take her own life.
When Paulina’s body is discovered, Judy’s worst fears seem confirmed. Only, Paulina didn’t kill herself. She was murdered.
So begins a thorny investigation, wherein every man on the island is a suspect yet none are as maligned as Paulina: the captivating newcomer known for her hard drinking, disastrous relationships, and habit of walking alone.
But, above all, Paulina is her mother’s daughter. And death won’t stop Judy Novak from fighting for Paulina’s life.
Laura Elizabeth Wollett has cemented herself as one of my favourite authors with The Newcomer. I am buying anything and everything she releases. I am generally not a fan of crime novels, but it was more literary than crime as it is more of a character study of Paulina and Judy Novak. I could not put this book down!
28-year-old Paulina Novak has left her life in Sydney and move to the remote Fairfolk island looking for her dream life in paradise. A year goes by and, Paulina’s mother, Judy, is visiting Fairfolk for Easter. Judy waits in her hotel room for Paulina to arrive. Paulina is late, again. But as the wait extends, a sense of dread fills Judy. What has happened to Paulina? Judy is worried her daughter has made good on her threat and had taken her life. Judy’s worse fears seems confirmed hours later when Paulina’s body was discovered. Only, Paulina has not killed herself; in fact, she fought for her life. She was murdered. And every man on the island is a suspect.
Given the heavy topic, I cannot say that I enjoyed reading The Newcomer. It left me feeling sick to my stomach in sections, but I was sucked into the island and the mystery that I could not help but pick it back up again. Paulina, put frankly, is a horrible person. But she is entirely human. She is messy, self-centred, self-destructive, manipulative, vulnerable, insecure, immature and much more. At one point, my heart bleeds for her and on the next page, I was furious and instantly against her. As the story unfolded, I kept reminding myself that it does not matter how horrible or difficult or unlikeable her actions have been in the past Paulina never deserved to be murder and especially not a brutally as she was.
The number of abusive things Paulina goes through before her murder is harrowing. She suffers from an eating disorder, alcoholism and low self-esteem. Paulina desperately wants to fit in and struggles to find her place with the locals. The islanders call her ‘Mainie’ and see her as an outsider. There is a big trigger warning for victim-blaming. The way the Islander men treat Paulina is, quite frankly, despicable. Paulina is looking for love and connection and believes sex is the same thing. The men blame her for the abuse they dole out. Paulina internalises this and believes she deserves the pain and violence inflicted on her.
The narrative opens with Paulina’s murder and then splits in two directions. Half the chapters follow Paulina’s life leading up to her murder, while the others follow her mother, Judy Novak, as she comes to terms with her grief and follows the investigation of her daughter’s killer.
Judy is far more sympathetic than her daughter. But in saying that, she has her own dark past filled with destructive mistakes and trauma. Paulina sees her mother as weak-willed, nagging and stupid. Paulina has always walked over Judy, bullying her mother into getting her way. But Judy is a caring mother who is trying her best to support Paulina through her health issues. There is a quiet strength to Judy. With the death of Paulina, her whole world crumbles. Judy’s life was centred around Paulina and she struggles to find purpose in life. Judy’s grief is realistic. It is ugly, raw and suffocating. To see her grief so openly displayed was, at times, unsettlingly to read.
Fairfolk island is haunting beautiful, boasting towering pine trees, sandy beaches and jaggy cliffs. It is a perfect setting; on the surface, the land looks inviting and like a paradise, but there is danger lurking.
The Newcomer is loosely based on the murder of Janelle Patton that happened on Norfolk Island. I am not sure how faithful this narrative is to that true crime since I have not read too much into the case. I just wanted to flag it just in case you were looking for an exploration of that particular case.
The Newcomer is unpredictable, captivating, deliciously dark and challenging. While not an easy read, it is thought-provoking and lingers for weeks after you finish that final page. It is not a straight-up thriller and is ultimately about an exploration of violence and grief. The mystery kept me hooked from the opening line and I could not look away. I would highly recommend it!
Tigger warnings for: sexual assault, rape, alcoholism, victim blaming, eating disorders and self-harm