Wagner’s Creek is a rundown seaside village full of fibro shacks, rubbish and the ‘dirt poor’: ‘Their boredom and despair was as high as the dry grass in their yards and as deep as the ruts in the road – and their hearts seemed as broken as their hanging gates and peeling fences.’ Elizabeth Stead’s other novel, The Fishcastle (2000), was also set in a seaside village where, as in Wagner’s Creek, strange things happen. Time goes more slowly in Wagner’s Creek, and the weather is different from everywhere else.
The common ground between Elizabeth Stead and her aunt Christina Stead is a predilection for the surreal. I’ve always found The Man Who Loved Children (1941) a nightmarish book, steeped in an intense, claustrophobic atmosphere that separates Louisa and the Pollit family from the rest of the world. The family in this novel consists of Fin Starling, a bastard, and his mother, Molly Starling, who is the town’s prostitute. And yes, she does have a heart of gold. Molly is delighted by the birth of her son, though he does have strange eyes and webbed feet. Fin is a silent child, obsessed by cleanliness and order. He suffers from what appears to be a contagious version of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Whenever he looks at people in a particular way, they too become infected by a desire to scrub, disinfect, and straighten furniture.