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The Hunter

by Julia Leigh

Martin David, or so he calls himself, is a qualified naturalist, but first and last he is a hunter. The bluestone farmhouse at the end of a dirt road, where he is to lodge, turns its back to a great plateau, created thirty million years ago by some catastrophic earth movement, which is the possible last refuge of the fabled thylacine, the Tasmanian tiger. Hunted to extinction half a century ago, it is now Martin David's prey. For who was of more value to a multi-national biotech company than this hunter: sampler and ensurer of exclusivity?

M looks at the ragwort pushing up through the abandoned wrecks of cars in the paddocks of the farm. As he sets off up the escarpment he wonders briefly what happened to the father of the farm children. Posted missing up on the plateau a year ago, why was there no mention of him from the company? The neglected children and their zonked-out mother bring a strange unbidden comfort to the chosen bleakness of M's life. But the hunt (the novel) is a maze of mystery and paradox. M is secretly hunting the most secretive animal on earth. The scientists, the bio-chemists, are after a sample of the thylacine DNA, for good or evil. M, the hunter, the loner, is their man.

A childish drawing of the Tasmanian tiger on the fridge door in the chaotic farm kitchen warms an unsuspected corner of M's psyche. The boy says his father, the missing-believed-dead Jarrah, saw the tiger last summer, up on the plateau. Mistrusting himself and his feelings, M returns to the plateau to share the bitterly inhospitable refuge of his prey. He fixes his bearings on his high resolution, satellite-generated physiographic map. He sets his snares, and waits in trance-induced patience under the stars, "...not God's little peepholes; no, science has long since squeezed all the gods from the firmament and replaced them with bilious clouds of rock and gas." By day he studies tracks and droppings across the plateau. "He wonders how long it had taken the National Parks researchers to finally come across the print which had led them to the sighting, which, in its own turn, had been passed, or rather leaked, secretly sold... thereon to him, M." From studying the hairs of a museum's stuffed pup, the developers of biological weapons were able to model a genetic picture of the thylacine, and there is no doubt in M's mind that the race is on to harvest the beast's DNA. But doubts plague him. Was it possible that the company no longer wanted him and this genetic material? He had already earned them hundreds of millions, probably billions. But was he even now sleepwalking into a trap?

And so it goes on: twelve days on the plateau, two days at the farm house. The woman begins to cook supper and the children are started back to school. The hunter is indefatigable. Then one day he comes upon the fresh and bloody mess of a wallaby, bearing all the reported characteristics of a tiger kill. He refuses to be excited, and it is the day on which he has to return to the farm or his absence will be noted and an alarm raised - the very last thing he wants to happen. But as he takes a bearing and heads back down the mountain his blood is up and singing.

At supper he notices changes in the woman and toys with the thought of a few extra glasses of wine; he wonders what she might look like as she undoes her bra. He feels sure that she is perfectly fuckable. But he turns away. It must wait.

THE HUNTER is Julia Leigh's first novel. She is the quintessential story teller. Her unconventional, attenuated prose powerfully evokes time and place, atmosphere and character, tensions and release. She breathes the confidence of absolute conviction as she describes this complex, inscrutable man, his hardness, and his nescience of any family life. His nervous reliance on the discretion of this jinxed little family in the cheerless outback is palpable. This is a novel to remember, by a novelist of great promise. Amid the flock of first-novelists she is recognisably the albatross, and with this novel she is safely fledged.

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