Book review: Sanctuary, Garry Disher

A gripping story of an unconventional thief who longs for normality.
Sanctuary. On the left is a full body author shot of a white man in black standing on a forest path with his hands in his pockets. On the right is the book cover of a dusty outback road heading into off towards the horizon.

This novel is a stand-alone one, so readers will not encounter Hirsch, Wyatt or Challis here, who you may recall are the protagonists of some of Garry Disher’s previous series. Instead, they will become acquainted with a very energetic woman in early middle-age who, when readers first meet her, calls herself Grace Latimore. She is an adroit and experienced thief with a good eye for antiques, artwork and rare memorabilia. And she is on the run, fearing that a former boyfriend and partner in crime may track her down and kill her. Naturally, she cannot go to the police for help or protection.

We learn something of Grace’s past and meet a few horrible villains as she traverses contemporary rural South Australia seeking a safe place to put down roots – the longed-for sanctuary of the title. She has a deep yearning to live like a normal person with neighbours and friends, and perhaps a family. She longs for a regular income earned legitimately and an identity that doesn’t need to be discarded at the slightest whiff of danger, but does not abandon crime in the meantime. 

While this novel bears no obvious resemblance to John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, it is an adventure story featuring a protagonist overcoming many obstacles in their quest to reach a desired goal. Reviews must not contain spoilers, but it is no spoiler to say you will not be disappointed in how Grace’s journey towards her end goal plays out. And during that journey, watching Grace prepare for and execute a theft is to witness a masterclass in writing about that vocation. 

When I reviewed Disher’s The Way it is Now a few years ago, I contended that ‘the story develops at too leisurely a pace, certainly too leisurely for this genre’. Sanctuary, however, opens at a spanking pace and many episodes of fast action thrillingly punctuate periods where the plot moves forward more slowly, no doubt intentionally echoing the pace of life in the real world.

This novel is no cheap page-turner, but a page-turner it often is. And when it moves more leisurely, the authentic portrayal of contemporary Australian life grounds the background in realism against the more unusual activities of a dedicated thief and those who wish her harm.

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And the opening chapter features a memorably brilliant, amusing and insightful description of the type of third-rate true crime show beloved by your more undiscerning YouTube audience:

A murder that shocks a small town, the victim usually a young woman offed by her husband or boyfriend, although they like to drag out the reveal. But you know it’s a close male connection because he’s the only one they don’t interview: he’s locked up. Meanwhile, you get plenty of screen time with the mouth-breathing parents, rednecks who look too stupid to have had a child in the first place.  

It is natural to have high expectations when a new novel is released by such a popular, well-regarded and prolific writer as Disher. In Sanctuary, you will not be disappointed. And should you ever wish to turn to crime or find yourself on the run from the authorities, there is many a useful lesson to be learned from Grace’s behaviour.

Sanctuary, Garry Disher
Publisher: Text Publishing
ISBN: 97819227790620

Paperback: 363pp 
RRP: $34.99
Published: 3 April 2024

Erich Mayer is a retired company director and former organic walnut farmer.