September 2013

Arts & Letters

Catherine Titasey’s ‘My Island Homicide’

By Louis Nowra

A surprising number of Australians don’t realise that the Torres Strait Islands are part of Australia. There are almost 300 of them stretching north of Cape York. Their administration is centred on Thursday Island, or TI as it is known. It’s small, with a multicultural population of only about 2500 people. There have been many nonfiction accounts of the island and some corny adventure stories set there, but few novels.

Catherine Titasey was a solicitor who ended up in TI and married an Islander fisherman. Now she has written a crime novel, My Island Homicide, featuring Thea, a police officer who has come to TI to escape her dismal love life. Raised in Cairns by a white father and a TI mother, Thea hopes to find out more about her mother’s culture.

What she discovers is that TI is a laidback place prone to mainly minor crimes, except for the murder of a young woman, Melissa. The solving of this case takes months and during that time Thea falls for Jonah, a fisherman. She becomes pregnant to him and, at the time she’s about to give birth, the true murderer is revealed.

Titasey details daily life on the island: the feral dogs, its strong fishing culture, taboos, the importance of tombstone unveilings, maydh (black magic), the melodramatic weather and the slower paced lifestyle. She has an excellent ear for the local pidgin, a word salad of English and traditional languages, plus the rhythms of speech.

Titasey doesn’t flinch from describing some of the darker aspects of Islander life, like drugs, juvenile crime and domestic violence. Yet despite the story being structured around a murder, the quest to find Melissa’s killer is strangely lacking in suspense, and the race in time between Thea giving birth and uncovering the murderer results in a silly and perfunctory courtroom scene. The true theme is Thea’s rocky journey to becoming an Islander and reconciling her European background with her mother’s heritage.

This is a novel at odds with itself. Titasey’s interest in the crime narrative appears outweighed by her fascination with TI, as evidenced in the exuberant descriptions of the island and its peoples. Titasey has almost a Masterchef-level of fascination with the local food. The lushness of the natural world and pleasures of fishing are wonderfully evoked, as are the traditional dancing and singing, and you’d struggle to find a book that gives you a more vivacious and accurate account of the Torres Strait Islanders of today.

Louis Nowra
Louis Nowra is an author, screenwriter and playwright. His books include Ice and The Twelfth of Never, and he is co-winner of the 2009 NSW Premier’s Script Writing Award for First Australians.

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