Favel Parrett is one of a new generation of Australian writers, and she has made an impressive debut with her first novel, Past the Shallows. It is raw, tough and uncompromising, and hard to put down: I read it in a single sitting.
If you travel much around the Australian coastline, sooner or later you will find a fishing fleet. These days the boats are huge and even from the pier you can see that they have a great deal of sophisticated equipment: radar and sonar, tall radio masts, and all the stuff needed for crews to process the catch quickly and efficiently and keep it on ice till it’s brought back to shore for the market. But none of this fancy gear can alter the fact that the Aussie coastline is rugged and dangerous, that the weather is capricious and often hostile, and that commercial fishermen are under constant pressure to bring back a catch big enough to make a profit. Often they go out in weather that would make an experienced sailor hesitate. It’s a hard, tough life for these professional crews, and harder still for any small operator competing against them in a boat owned by the bank.
Favel Parrett has used this scenario for a pitiless tale. There are three brothers growing up under the volatile moods of their father Steven Curren. Joe, at nineteen is the oldest, and on the verge of abandoning the family: Miles is still at school but old enough to go out on the Lady Ida during the holidays, and Harry is the baby of the family, an afterthought.
The plotting of this novel is taut and effective with a climax that makes turning out the bedside light an impossibility, but it’s the characterisation that will stay with me. The third person narration gives us only two perspectives – Harry’s and Miles’ – and each of these bring this sad family and its secrets to life. Harry is too young to remember much of his dead mother – he knows only the privation that a neglected child endures. He is often hungry, craving sweet things but hoarding them too because he knows their rarity. He is lonely, in the way, underfoot and often a burden for Miles because there is no one else to look out for him. Aunty Jean takes him to the Hobart Regatta but doing her best for these motherless boys isn’t much of a best; she isn’t well, she hasn’t much money, and she has her own burdens of grief which blind her to the emotions of a child.
Harry finds solace in small friendships. There is a school friend, Stuart, with a kindly mother who dares not interfere; there is a grotesquely disfigured neighbour whose dog offers the comfort of touch; and there is Miles to hero-worship. But he cannot expect much from any of the people in his life: he has had to learn to make himself unobtrusive and to mould himself to suit the expectations of others:
The air was cold and the house was quiet. Harry got out of bed and shoved his bare feet into his sneakers. Out in the kitchen, if he stood right on the tips of his sneakers, he could just reach the peanut butter jar in the top cupboard. He ran his finger around the inside of the almost empty jar. There was only enough peanut butter for one slice, so he put two pieces of bread in the toaster and made a toast sandwich.
Even though the embers were dead, Harry sat down by the wood heater to eat. He ate quickly. Aunty Jean would be here soon to take him to the Regatta and he’d better get dressed properly. He’d better find the scarf she’d made him and wear it. He’d better find the navy blue parka she’d bought him for Christmas. He didn’t really like the parka because it was too big and he didn’t like the colour, but it was warm. Anyway, he didn’t have another coat. Only a thin rain jacket. (p11-12)
Miles is burdened by half-remembered memories and by his fraught relationship with his harsh, uncompromising father. He hates going out on the boat and although he loves to surf, he fears the sea and its moods as much as he fears his father. He has learned the hard way to fear his father’s fishing partner, Jeff, as well. There are no safe havens for these boys on land or sea. Miles longs to be a craftsman in wood as his Grandfather had been but he knows this isn’t an option.
It is a melancholy novel, but as Robert Drewe says on the cover blurb, it seems real and true, and it ‘sweeps you away in its tide’. Parrett has resisted the temptation to conclude with a banal resolution – and it is left to the reader to imagine how these people brought so vividly to life will come to terms with the final tragedy.
Author: Favel Parrett
Title: Past the Shallows
Publisher: Hachette, 2011
Source: Personal library, purchased from Readings, $26.99
Fishpond: Past the Shallows