Lana Guineay’s debut novel Dark Wave, the winner of Seizure’s 2020 Viva la Novella prize, is a deeply physical book, as light and as heavy as lying supine in warm water. The protagonists of Dark Wave are tugged at by familiar undercurrents, the umbral ley lines that connect us to lovers, friends, family. It presents itself as a mystery, a tale of deception and intrigue ­– but a wounded heart lies wet on these pages, a crime only patience and honesty can solve.

Holidaying at a resort comes with the promise of unfettered luxury, “the permissive world of holidays, where anything [feels] possible”. For photographer Paloma Knightley, whose family owns Songbird Island, the world of the resort provides her a predictable shell to curl into while balming old wounds and new grief. But when an anonymous letter threatens this stability, posing “a question in a place that had only ever given her answers”, Paloma turns to her ex-husband, George Green: a man who eschewed stability, giving up a career in professional surfing for that of a PI.

Dark Wave begins bright, delighting in the “slow sensuality of sun and sea”. The prose pulls you across the page like the tide, flowing sentences whorling into gentle eddies, until darker shapes coalesce deeper in the water. While the mystery is introduced early, threatening the haven of the island, the resort’s stasis remains, with diving excursions and tequila shots and soulful walks on the beach. When the stakes are raised, they’re raised quickly; but even as Dark Wave enters shadowed waters, Guineay provides brief moments of flair with playful structural choices.

George might be tarnished, but he shucks the shell of the detective trope early. He scoops up a copy of The Big Sleep to read on the beach, but he lacks the wisecracking attitude of Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, and he’s no “blonde Satan” like Hammett’s Sam Spade. George’s talents as a detective are modest; he’s no ratiocinative detective, no eideteker, reading Buddhist literature over chess notation. While he acts on his gut, George finds success by being observant, inquisitive, and by diligently following leads.

Together, George and Paloma are the beach, that strip of wild water caressing the luxurious earth, tamed by towel and sunnies and shade. Paloma comes from a place of stability, of reliable luxury. Born into wealth, she cannot help but be moulded by it, shaped by the firm but manicured hand of privilege. But George rides the tumult, embarrassed by privilege. He has rejected stability, and thus in the past rejected Paloma; when stasis beckons, George pushes against it, wild waves thrashing at the shore.

But Paloma is far from overbearing or controlling. Her stability is the safety of an island holding firm against the sea. Paloma’s journey is richer than George’s, from the grief over her father’s death, to her deepening anxieties, to her proximity to the crime. She is not without considerable heart, or self-doubt ­– as someone who has Googled a few spurious symptoms in my time, Paloma’s problems with anxiety rang true for me. George solves the mystery, but Dark Wave belongs more to Paloma, and the treacheries of Songbird Island lie heavier with her.

As a mystery, Dark Wave achieves much in its novella length. If anything, it ends too soon, barrelling the reader all too briefly, the storm settling perhaps a bit too quickly. But the promise of future waves from Lana Guineay is an inviting prospect indeed.

Ryan J Morrison is an emerging author and academic based on Kaurna land.

Dark Wave, by Lana Guineay, is published by Brio Books.

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A Year in Review  is an initiative by  Writers SA, with assistance from the Australia Council of the Arts, to produce a series of book reviews published in InDaily over 12 months.

The reviews focus on titles published during the pandemic, highlighting the work of Australian authors and publishers during this difficult time for the sector, and giving literary critics an outlet for their work that supports a strong culture of reading.

See previously published reviews  here.

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This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.