Fiona McFarlane’s 2013 debut novel, “The Night Guest,” revolved around two singular women – Ruth, a lonely, ailing widow, whose “blurry brain” warps her recollections and distorts her reality, and Frida, who purports to be a government carer sent to help her. When Frida moves into Ruth’s spare room, she not only comes to occupy her home, she begins to manipulate her mind. What follows is a suspenseful tale of misplaced trust, mislaid memories and unreliable narration.

McFarlane’s second novel couldn’t be more different from her first. “The Sun Walks Down” sees the Sydney-born author working on a considerably grander scale. She swaps the close confines of Ruth’s New South Wales beach house for the dry and torrid expanse of the Australian outback. She also sets her book in the late 19th century and fills it with a huge, kaleidoscopic cast. What unites both novels is McFarlane’s masterful storytelling, not least her ability to make her reader care about a character’s fate.

One day in September 1883 in “the arid middle of South Australia,” 6-year-old Denny Wallace gets lost in a dust storm while out collecting kindling. For some hours, he isn’t missed, and life carries on as normal: His father, Mathew, who is struggling to make ends meet, works the land of his wheat farm with his Aboriginal hired hand, Billy Rough; his mother loses herself in the daily grind of household chores; his five sisters attend a wedding in the nearby town of Fairly. When it becomes painfully apparent that Denny isn’t coming home, members of the community join forces with his family to look for him.

As McFarlane ushers in and fleshes out her characters, her narrative takes the form of rotating perspectives and crisscrossing storylines. We meet newly married Minna, the daughter of German immigrants, and her husband, Robert, a police officer more used to dealing with cattle thieves and cardsharps than lost boys. Karl Rapp, a Swedish artist specializing in “stippled shade and blurred horizons,” ventures out into the desert with his English wife, Bess, to paint the blazing sunsets. Mr. Daniels, the local vicar, manages to fall sick but also arouse suspicion. Denny’s 15-year-old sister, Cissy, a no-nonsense, go-getting “mulish queen,” insists on tagging along and scouring the landscape until her brother is found. And Denny himself appears at key intervals to offer a child’s-eye view of his terrifying predicament.

Some individuals have mere cameo roles and provide only flashes of color. However, most of the characters make an impression, particularly Cissy, who has agency and ambition and emerges as a force to be reckoned with. McFarlane interlards accounts of the search and snapshots of lives with a selection of other writings – stories, dreams, confessions, prayers, testimonies – all of which add diverse tones and hues to the proceedings.

McFarlane also ensures that her novel is as much about place as it is about people. She expertly maps the lay of the land and allows us to see it the same way her Indigenous trackers do, not as vast, empty, open wilderness but rather as fertile terrain “dense with motion,” rich in history and packed full of flora and fauna, water and minerals, ancestors and spirits.

“The Sun Walks Down” may lack the element of mystery that pervaded McFarlane’s previous book, but it makes up for it with its supply of high-stakes drama. Tension mounts every time tragedy looms or disaster strikes. We read on with queasy dread when the spotlight falls on frightened and exhausted Denny wandering farther off course, or when the search party discovers a bloodstained handkerchief and lace-less boots. But we also read on captivated by the novel’s beautiful prose and polyphonic voices, and marveling at both its epic scope and rare intimacy.

Malcolm Forbes is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the Economist, the Financial Times, the Wall Street Journal and the New Republic.

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