“That was the thing about bushfires. They didn’t eat just the bush; they swallowed homes, shops, and cars. Whole streets. Whole populations.”
What is Radiant Heat about?
When a catastrophic wildfire suddenly rips through a woman’s hometown, she thinks she is lucky to have survived…until she finds a dead woman in her driveway, clutching a piece of paper with her name on it….
Alison is alive. She rode out the fire on the damp tiles of her bathroom, her entire body swaddled in a wet woolen blanket. The flames crackled around her, the bitter char of eucalyptus settling in the back of her throat. The wildfire devastated the Victoria countryside she calls home, and when Alison creeps out of her hiding place, she spots a soot-covered cherry red car in her driveway, and in it, a woman. She finds the woman’s bag. An Simone Arnold. A piece of Alison’s full name and address. But why?
As Alison searches for answers across Australia’s harsh landscape, she soon learns that the fire isn’t the only threat she’s facing….
Radiant Heat by Sarah-Jane Collins is an immersive, atmospheric mystery story set during a horrific wildfire in Australia. We meet our protagonist, Alison King, alone, lying in a wet blanket cocoon on the bathroom floor outside her house, engulfed in an inferno. While her home was sparred, everything around her was black and ash. Once beautiful trees are now denuded toothpicks poking through the landscape, and in her driveway is a rare car with a dead woman inside.
“Simone Arnold looked like fun, Alison thought. Her dirty-blond hair sat in a long, neat braid that fell down the right side of her chest. She wore jeans and a pale pink camisole. Alison saw a blanket on the back seat, and she reached through the broken window for it. She threw it gently over Simone, not wanting to leave her exposed. She softly dragged her fingertips over her eyelids, concealing the dulled stare.”
Here is where the mystery begins…˙
I found two important things with this novel; first and foremost is the quality of Collins’s writing. People often use the word atmospheric to describe worldbuilding, but a brush fire in Australia will have sight, sound, and smell that belong to that event. It would have a solid sense of place. There is nothing akin to wildfire; it is a beast all on its own, and having lived through some myself, Collins expertly paints the opening scenes—a testament to how the rest of the book is written. Collins is a damn good author. Secondly, I did not much care for Allison as a person. This in itself does not make or break a book. Quite the contrary, again, the story remained engaging and thought-provoking even while Allison was often unlikable and sometimes overwritten and dim-witted. Allison remained a throughly complex character, flaws and all.
Pacing-wise, Collins grabbed my attention back to the plot when my attention began to wander. There are some slower sections of the novel. But enough tension and mystery remain that kept me rolling to the end.
I recommend Radiant Heat for the masterclass in atmospheric writing alone. However, the plotting and characters make this an immersive read and worth the time it takes to read through it.