Saturday, 27 April 2013

Book Review: DARK HORSE by Honey Brown

Dark Horse

Title: Dark Horse
Author: Honey Brown
Publisher: Penguin Books Australia
Read: April 24-26, 2013

Synopsis (Goodreads): 

It's Christmas morning on the edge of the rugged Mortimer Ranges. Sarah Barnard saddles Tansy, her black mare. She is heading for the bush, escaping the reality of her broken marriage and her bankrupted trail-riding business.

Sarah seeks solace in the ranges. When a flash flood traps her on Devil Mountain, she heads to higher ground, taking shelter in Hangman's Hut.

She settles in to wait out Christmas.

A man, a lone bushwalker, arrives. Heath is charming, capable, handsome. But his story doesn't ring true. Why is he deep in the wilderness without any gear? Where is his vehicle? What's driving his resistance towards rescue? The closer they become the more her suspicions grow.

But to get off Devil Mountain alive, Sarah must engage in this secretive stranger's dangerous game of intimacy.

My thoughts: 

Honey Brown’s latest thriller, Dark Horse, is the kind of book you should not pick up without giving yourself enough time-out to finish it. Did it see me walk around the house in a daze, giving blank stares to any family member brave enough to approach me? Did it force me to survive on cold leftovers for a day because I did not want to waste valuable reading time by going shopping? Did it cause me to lodge my BAS statement late despite the threat of a hefty fine? Yes, yes and yes. Was it worth it? Yes, definitely! I reluctantly emerged from my bedroom, feeling emotionally battered like the survivor of a natural disaster – and probably looking like one, too, from lack of sleep! A mere hour after finishing it, I am still in the grips of this haunting tale, tempted to pick it back up again and start from the beginning, to find all the clues I missed along the way.

Still reeling from a nasty divorce, financial ruin and the prospect of losing both her business and her home, Sarah Barnard cannot muster up the energy to spend Christmas Day under the accusing stares of her parents, who somehow blame her for the breakup of her marriage and the downhill slide her life has taken. Saddling her beloved black mare Tansy, she heads for the one place she knows will give her sanctuary and solace – the rugged mountains of the Mortimer Ranges behind her home. Sarah knows this part of the bush well – she has taken visitors through these trails many times as part of her doomed trail riding business. And yet something doesn’t feel quite right on the mountain today. Before Sarah has the chance to check the weather forecast on her phone, Tansy is spooked by a deafening roar in the distance and both horse and rider gape in horror as the huge wave caused by a flash flood is bearing down on them. They barely escape with their lives, but are now trapped on the other side of the flooded creek, with the weather closing in rapidly. Knowing the mountain well, Sarah heads for the only place which can give them shelter – a lonely historic bushranger’s hut on top of Devil’s mountain.

Arriving at the hut soaked through to the skin and bitterly cold, Sarah finds it partly demolished and under repair. She finds food and shelter in a workman’s caravan, enough to see her through for a few days. But then, in the distance, she hears the whistling – she is not alone on the mountain. Who is Heath, the young man who has invaded her sanctuary? His name, his story, his whole demeanour appear to be one big lie to Sarah. His reasons for being here don’t add up. And yet, to survive, she must set her misgivings aside and share the food and shelter they have, until help arrives. But can she really trust him?

This taut and adrenaline-infused novel, with its cast of two (or three if you count the mare) is purely atmosphere and character driven, and Honey Brown does this so very well. From the moment Sarah puts her feet in the stirrups and heads for the hills, the scenery played out clearly for me in my head, bringing the mountain to life. In an interview with the author I read recently, she explained that she enjoys exploring the what-if’s in life. What if you were trapped on a lonely mountain, in the pouring rain, with no way of getting back and noone even knows where to look for you? And if that wasn’t bad enough, what if you now found that you have the company of a total stranger, trapped there on the mountain with you, a man whose whole reason for being there seems a lie? Well, it surely had me hooked, and I couldn’t put the book down until I had found out the answers.

By having a cast of only two, the novel may have been in danger of becoming monotonous or dry if written by a lesser writer. No fear of that with Dark Horse though – the dialogue was taut and urgent, the atmosphere creepy and the character’s emotions compelling. Every time I thought I had worked it out, a surprise twist or action would totally blow that theory out of the water again. And in the end I was so blindsighted that the truth left me gaping in surprise and horror – what???? No way!

Apart from the suspense, Dark Horse explores some of the intricacies of the human mind. Faced by danger, do we turn to the only other human near us for solace, despite the obvious dangers? Brown, who is no stranger to trauma and despair, captures both emotions skilfully in her characters, who each bear scars of their own which will affect their actions and behaviours. Whenever I thought Sarah’s actions to be irrational, and asked myself “what would you do?”, it ultimately all came down to the same answer- probably exactly the same. Or would I? It is a very clever story which can explore the outer limits of human emotions and behaviour in a way that the reader can see them clearly inside oneself as well. What are we really capable off if faced by danger and despair? Who do we turn to?

After reeling in shock from the twist near the end of the novel, the rest of the story felt almost like an anticlimax and I longed to go back to the mountain in my mind, despite the spine-thrilling chills it had sent down my spine earlier. For fear of giving away spoilers, I cannot discuss why the end felt unsatisfactory (not from a writing point of view, but from the emotions unleashed earlier), although it was perhaps the only reasonable conclusion that also allowed for hope and closure. And yet – it made me feel sad somehow.

Dark Horse is a must-read for any thriller lover and will undoubtedly be savoured by many. Readers who enjoyed Brown’s previous novels or other books in the same genre, such as Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, should rush out NOW and read Dark Horse. Stock up on food and drink, unplug the phone, put a Do Not Disturb sign on your bedroom door and let yourself get carted off to an unforgettable adventure on Devil Mountain. You will not regret it.

This book forms part of my 2013 Australian Women Writers Challenge.


  1. I loved this too - great review!

    Shelleyrae @ Book'd Out

    1. Thanks, Shelleyrae - it certainly did not disappoint!