By Emma Burton
Many of us are familiar with the storms and raging cyclones that pass through Queensland during the hot, rainy season. We hear the thunder, the wailing wind, and the pounding rain on our roofs. We are also familiar with the mess a storm leaves behind. Gathering Storms is Kerry McGinnis’ thirteenth novel, and while it brings all the anticipation of a damaging storm, you come to realise that it was vastly overestimated by forecasters, turning out to be nothing more than a short downpour, leaving as quickly as it arrived.
Set in the small town of Southbend during the Gulf country’s monsoon season, we follow 30-year-old Penny, who runs a nursery with her ex-father-in-law Angus. Still processing the death of her husband Michael and the revelations that came with it, Penny is shocked when his young daughter, Lisa, is dropped on her doorstep. This is followed by a cyclone that ravages the town, unearthing a skeleton in its wake, hidden under an old fence post in the local cemetery. This discovery triggers painful memories from Penny’s past and questions about her childhood.
The drama begins instantly with the arrival of Lisa, something that is stated quite matter-of-factly along with the novel’s title: ‘Lisa arrived in Southbend in mid-November on a day of gathering storms’. Thereafter, we are quickly introduced to our main cast of characters, including Angus and the neighbourly, enigmatic Flint, Penny’s love interest. The pacing in the first half feels fast, which is strange considering not much in terms of plot happens for a good portion of the novel. Lisa and Penny’s relationship is understandably tumultuous at the beginning, and this is interesting when it comes to their characters, however, what could be a strong point of the novel, isn’t fleshed out or given much attention before it’s resolved. I would’ve been more engaged had the development of their relationship been slowed, and more of a connection was developed between them throughout the novel. Ultimately, it came across as underdeveloped and not entirely realistic.
While most characters in the novel are largely two-dimensional, I do have to give McGinnis credit for the decent character development of Penny. It’s not complex by any means, but you do get the sense that she is evolving and growing throughout the novel. This most notably comes in the form of grief, the processing of which is a big theme in the novel. Her interactions with the other characters change and develop nicely, aided by the first-person narrative. You get a clear sense of who Penny is and what exactly has shaped her, and the reader is left satisfied at the novel’s conclusion.
The mystery of Gathering Storms is quite plain, perhaps simple. I doubt all readers will mind that, however, as a reader who enjoys mystery, I found it to be lacking. Firstly, the mystery surrounding the skeleton doesn’t appear until halfway through the novel, which leaves very little room for it to develop at a decent pace. Secondly, it also tends to feel like a side plot at times, with the main beats of this mystery happening around Penny’s budding romance with Flint and other town events. Thirdly, there is a tendency for McGinnis to reveal information not previously mentioned before it suddenly became important to the mystery a few pages later. This was quite jarring at times and felt like a ham-fisted, contrived way of quickly moving the mystery along. It would’ve felt more natural had these moments been subtly placed throughout the novel. Bringing them all together could have created a satisfying ‘ah uh’ moment for the reader, but instead, the novel felt very spelled out. The culprit has little presence, and the conclusion lacks tension or any sense of danger, especially since it was over quickly and resolved far too easily. Not entirely anti-climactic, but missing substance. Overall, it is a simple mystery, but one I found to be missing the depth to not steer toward the obvious.
Depth is what this novel lacks in a lot of aspects. It’s an easy, quick read with decent writing and dialogue. ‘Life did its worst, and you picked up your load of sorrow and regret and stumbled on with it, while the trauma slowly receded behind you, although the ache stayed in your heart’, is some mesmerising prose. But the overall storyline and characters (excluding maybe Penny) aren’t developed to their full potential, and character relationships feel largely superficial. Gathering Storms has all the makings of a story of grief, romance, and an intriguing mystery, but in the end, it under-delivers.
If you are looking for a book to kill some time that doesn’t contain an intricate, involved plot, then I would recommend Gathering Storms. If you’re looking for a suspenseful mystery that keeps you turning the page right up to the very end, then I’d tell you to look elsewhere.
Gathering Storms is available now from Penguin.
Emma Burton is a Brisbane based writer and QUT creative writing graduate. She is currently undertaking a Graduate Certificate of Writing, Editing and Publishing at UQ, while working on her first new adult fantasy novel. She hopes to have it finished by the end of the year, or when her cat decides to stop sitting on her laptop and demanding attention.