Trevor Shearston's The Beach Caves is a surprising "academic genre" mystery set on the NSW South Coast

  • The Beach Caves, by Trevor Shearston. Scribe, $29.99.

This is an intriguing book, not at all what the reader might expect from the title and the cover.

Set in the ANU Pre-history department and the "Research School", but placed mostly on the banks of the Clyde river, and the beach at "North Teapot", apparently near Batehaven, Shearston has written an "academic genre" novel.

I would love to have seen the look on Professor John Mulvaney's face (he the legendary, late, pre-eminent prehistorian) when Trevor Shearston told him he intended to "re-people" his department with "fictional strangers". But Shearston's people make the book.

Here the reader finds high academic achievement, overweening academic ambition, and appalling academic jealousy. Caught up in all this is a bunch of undergraduate students, dragooned to the intense labour of an archaeological dig, hoping for high marks and a guaranteed archaeological career. It is academic abuse of a high order.

Perhaps Shearston devotes slightly too much of his novel to the techniques and methods of archaeology, of interest, no doubt, to some readers, but threatening to overwhelm the early part of his novel.

But with a major plot development shaking up the story, and many intriguing plot twists to come, Shearston soon gains the reader's undivided attention.

The main character is Annette, a female student, clearly first class honours potential, with a wonderful career in front of her. But her naivete, innocence and almost smug certainty blow up that career and much else besides.

The narrative depends on extraordinary archaeological discoveries that motivate and drive the academics and excite and challenge the students. The reader might doubt that digs proceed so satisfactorily and so fast but will give Shearston some licence.

Minor characters, an unpleasant beach perv, senior policemen, academic departmental colleagues are well-drawn with some humour. But the main characters, Annette and her emerging male love interest, bother me. They are rigid, humourless and hopeless at personal interactions, however skilled in the dig and bush ways. Both drive the narrative to its surprising resolution.

Apparently written over an extended period, The Beach Caves will attract readers wanting an insight into the academic mind and procedures. Other readers will enjoy it for its mystery. It will startle some with the life-long consequences of the domination of the minds of emerging bright students. The reader will wish the students good fortune. Trevor Shearston shows it is unlikely they will get it.

  • Michael McKernan enjoyed happy years at the ANU.
This story Mystery, intrigue and an archaeological dig first appeared on The Canberra Times.