What first drew me to Paul Howarth’s debut novel, Only Killers and Thieves, were the numerous comparisons to Philipp Meyer’s The Son. Of course, if you parse through some of my older blog posts you’ll clearly see my admiration for Meyer’s writing. Simply by reading the synopsis, it was evident how similar this new novel would be to The Son, just replace the fields of Texas with the late nineteenth century Australian Outback.
Only Killers and Thieves tells the story of two teenage brothers who face a devastating future after their family is attacked. The boys then are left with a difficult obligation: Hunt down the people responsible. The plot itself is fairly predictable. Sure, there are moments of brief surprise, but the book is almost written in a way where Howarth did not intend to deceive. He paced the plot well; in fact, for its length (just over 300 pages), this was one of the best-paced novels I’ve read in a while. While written in wonderfully descriptive language, there were no wasted words or unnecessary scenes.
This debut novel was written with and for a purpose. It interrogates an important—and often lost—history of the relationship between the white settlers and aboriginal tribes of Australia. In that way, it is appropriately compared to The Son and its examination of white and Native American interactions. There was one quote, late in the text, that really struck home. It read, “The guilt is collective, the responsibility shared. In a hundred years no one will even remember what happened here and certainly no one will care. History is forgiving.” That passage says it all.
The book is aptly titled. Consciences are few and far between in the story, though I suspect the characters were accurately depicted given the race relations during the time period in rural Australia.
At the end of the day, this is a debut novel not only worth reading, but should be pushed to the top of your list. It’s brutal, beautiful and brooding. Much like after finishing Meyer’s first novel, American Rust, I am most interested now in seeing how Howarth follows up this exceptional debut.