Book review: Gone to Ground by Bronwyn Hall

(courtesy Harlequin Australia)

The review copy was supplied by NetGalley / publication date is 3 August 2022

There are novels, the sole motivation of which is to push the pedal to the metal and go hell for leather towards the narrative finish line, characters sacrificed on the altar of a thrilling story; then are those books that promise a riveting journey through terrors unknown but stop a little too often to give the characters room to breathe, sapping the momentum of the story until it almost grinds to a shuddering stop.

Then there is Gone to Ground, a fast-paced novel from Bronwyn Hall which keeps things moving at a rigorously adrenalised pace, while taking care to invest a human dimension in events which enrich the story without feeling like a drag on the pell-mell race to safety and justice.

That’s quite the balancing act, especially when you consider that in amongst all the compelling characterisation and geopolitical intrigue and violence, there are some fairly powerfully confronting issues raised, the sort that don’t always make the headlines but which materially affect people’s lives, and which don’t always receive the just outcome they deserve.

Interestingly, while Gone to Ground is presented almost singularly on the publisher’s website as a bracing piece of political theatre set against the backdrop of civil war and UN peacekeeping in the jungles of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, it also has a fairly hefty serving of romance into the bargain, an unexpected inclusion that actually works nicely, adding rather than subtracting to the grittiness of the rest of the story.

“Anton looked at me, considering. ‘You should probably understand a few things,’ he said. ‘There’ll be armed forces here very unhappy to see us and they’ll want us dead before we find anything. We’ll do everything we can to get you back to safety, but being here isn’t good for you.'”

As Gone to Ground gets underway, we meet UN surgeon Rachel Forester, an Australian who finds herself out in remote warlord-infested jungle tending to patients who have been brutally wounded by near-constant fighting, much of it driven not by politics but by turf fighting by criminal gangs who are using child labour to mine diamonds which are then spirited out of the country, benefiting only the criminals and leaving the populace, already traumatised by war and loss, in grindingly abject poverty.

What’s meant to be a routine trip to a few villages to inoculate people soon becomes a thousand kinds of complicated as Rachel and a nurse called Michael have to stay behind to tend to a grievously wounded woman and girl, acts of desperate medical mercy which mean that Rachel is in camp when four Canadian peacekeepers enter, one of them so badly wounded there’s a good chance he won’t make it.

As Rachel and the three healthy troops are forced to remain on the ground when everyone else including the wounded are evacuated by a too-small helicopter, a race through the jungle to the relative safety of a nearby town begins, one which fills Gone to Ground with pounding tension and all kinds of searingly ethical questions that beg you to consider what it is you might walk past, and whether in the end, you value the welfare of others over your own.

(courtesy Harper Collins Publishers)

It’s a huge dilemma especially when you’re fleeing for your life from the very people who should be protecting you.

It turns out that some members of the UN operation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo are in with the criminals but quite who isn’t clear, which muddies the water so much that apart from the troops she’s with, Rachel can’t really trust anyone.

It’s a classic case of the good guys turning out to be the bad guys, well, some of them anyway, which adds a Three Days of the Condor element to the storyline which is seething with enough dangerous intent as it is.

Somehow in the middle of this pulse-pounding race through the jungle in which survival is far from guaranteed, Hall manages to place the innate humanity of the situation front and centre, a deft interweaving of political thriller, geopolitical ethical dilemmas and interpersonal connections that adds to a compelling, page-turningly readable story.

Gone to Ground is the kind of story that barely pauses for breath but still somehow feels as if it is serving up a deep dive into the human soul, whether it’s Rachel and the lead soldier Anton getting closer than either expect or the sudden team of four having to battle for the lives of civilians caught in the crossfire and for their own souls when they’re confronted time and again by a choice between saving themselves or risking their lives to save others.

“‘Are you still angry with me?’ I asked.

He raised his eyes to look at me and I saw he was calm.

‘With you, no,’ he said. Then he sighed. ‘At finding proof UN soldiers are complicit in using children to mine illegal diamonds … just a little bit.’

I thought of the faces of the children as they’d pulled the buckets from the mine, their desperation and their fear. What kind of people did that to children?”

As thrillers go, Gone to Ground is a compellingly well done.

It has characters who leap off the page, part-trope, part-grounded real people, dialogue that snaps and crackles in way that will have you laughing as much as gasping, and an infusion of the sinister and the dark that will leave you wondering how sick and twisted the human soul really is.

Granted, there are times when perhaps the romance begins to feel just a little too thickly laid on, but then Hall nimbly steps sideways, grounding it all again in the sheer, raw immediacy of the story and we’re away once more, hoping desperately that all four will make it to safety and that they’ll be able to save enough innocent souls along the way.

Filled with tension aplenty, horns of dilemma so sharp they could well impale you – although Rachel, Anton, and the others really have no choice but to act in the defense of others if they want to look themselves in the face afterwards (assuming they survive) – and a buoyant sense of humanity that somehow survives everything that assails it, Gone to Ground is a thrillingly intense piece of storytelling that deliver edge-of-the-seat fast-paced narrative momentum but with an eye always firmly focused on the fact that even the very worst acts of people can find a counterbalance by those willing to stand up and be counted.

There’s a lot on the line, and a lot of ways the story could go off the rails, juggling a number of key narrative components as it is, but it sails seamlessly and assuredly on, delivering up a story rich in intrigue, mystery, danger and violence, but also strong connection and unexpected belonging, the kind that is so rich and motivating that it might just manage to overcome the very worst of everything.

Maybe …

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