Laura Elizabeth Woollett's novel The Newcomer asks whether a less likeable victim is harder to mourn

  • The Newcomer, by Laura Elizabeth Woollett. Scribe, $32.99.

What makes the "right" kind of victim? Are some women more deserving of murder than others? And how do we react when the victim of a crime is not easy to mourn?

In Laura Elizabeth Woollett's most recent novel, The Newcomer, the author explores the complexity of the female identity through a complicated, messy and unlikeable central character, Paulina, who is murdered after moving her life to the small community of Fairfolk Island.

Loosely based on Norfolk Island, Fairfolk is a closed community of families who have lived there for generations since its foundation, and "mainies" like Paulina who move there from mainland Australia.

Troubled and chaotic, Paulina moves to Fairfolk after a relationship breakdown, keen to build a new life for herself. But her brash, rowdy, at times rude behaviour puts her on the wrong side of some locals' opinions, and her time on the island is cut short after her murder.

The novel is told through the lens of Paulina's mother, Judy, who is devastated by the loss of her daughter and determined to find her killer. But the more she digs, the more she is confronted by the difficult reality that Paulina was not well-liked, and that her death isn't met with universal mourning as Judy may have hoped.

The Newcomer is a cleverly written, gripping read that takes the classic crime fiction format and flips it by asking, what happens when the unlikeable victim is murdered? Who pushes to find their killer? And is violence the common experience of women who refuse to comply with society's rules?

Paulina is self-destructive and mean, barrelling through life drunk and stoned, throwing herself into and out of relationships and disrupting lives wherever she goes.

But she's also desperately unhappy, traumatised by numerous experiences of violence and abuse, and ready to start a new life. Her death is unexpected but feels inevitable to many locals, who are certain that she was always on a path to trouble.

Woollett impressively weaves together the narrative of Judy's investigations and Paulina's past to guide the reader to the conclusion, revealing new facts and tightening the noose around Paulina's killer gradually.

Given this is the author's first real foray into crime fiction, it is a strong debut to the genre, with a gripping narrative deepened by the complexity of themes being uncovered, which include explorations of gender, race and mental health.

This is a pacey book that will leave the reader reflecting and unpacking it for days after reading, and that shows the versatility and potential still to be uncovered in Woollett's ability as a writer.

  • Zoya Patel is the author of "No Country Woman: A Memoir of Not Belonging".
This story Mourning an unlikeable murder victim - or not first appeared on The Canberra Times.