Home > Book Reviews > Book Review – The Last Asbestos Town by Helen Hagemann

Book Review – The Last Asbestos Town by Helen Hagemann

Helen Hagemann’s debut novel The Last Asbestos Town is set in a near future where Western Australia is being terrorised by the Asbestos Task Force or ATF, an aggressive and unfeeling government entity intent on demolishing any building thought to contain this notoriously dangerous building material. May and Isaac are twenty-somethings who have recently moved to the country town of Farmbridge to take up residence in an old Girl Guides building. It isn’t long before they’re being harassed by the ATF and the threat of demolition provides one of the major narrative thrusts of the novel.

The relationship between May and Isaac is developed over the course of chapters told from alternating points of view. Isaac is a bit of a dropkick who can’t seem to hang onto a job for long and his drug habit doesn’t help, but he’s intent on saving their house and he isn’t shy of employing some unorthodox methods in achieving this. May has her own business sewing clothes as well as looking after Isaac and she’s definitely the stable influence in their relationship. As the story develops it becomes clear that, for all his faults, Isaac is the driving force in the narrative, however.

May and Isaac don’t just have the ATF to worry about – their home is also haunted by the ghost of a dead woman, Cheryl, who was murdered years before. A lot of effort goes into investigating the origin of what is basically a poltergeist inhabiting the house, and a major plot point hinges on turning Cheryl’s haunting to their advantage. Isaac makes friends with members of the local Aboriginal community and he eventually gets the idea of using their traditional magic to ward off the ATF as well as a pesky drug dealer.

Hagemann’s background is in poetry and this shines through in some excellent descriptive writing throughout, particularly the descriptions of natural settings. Her writing is visceral and the countryside and rivers of Farmbridge burst to life over the course of the story. Between Cheryl’s hauntings and the magic of the Aboriginal shaman, there’s definitely a supernatural cast to The Last Asbestos Town, which offers a nice contrast to the bureaucratic machinations of the ATF. The author’s environmental concerns are present throughout in asides on the polluting of riverways, but this is also tempered by the human cost of arbitrarily bulldozing houses thought to contain asbestos.

The Last Asbestos Town is a fine debut and promises even better to come. A second novel, The Ozone Cafe, is slated for release this October from Adelaide Books in New York.

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