Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 19, 2011

Slow Water (2003), by Annamarie Jagose

Slow Water by Annamarie Jagose is a wonderful book, one of my favourites.  This is a belated review of this title which I read in 2006, before I started this blog…

Why blog it now?  Lately I’ve been trying to beef up my credentials as a blogger of New Zealand fiction and have just discovered (thanks to Clare, one of our New Zealand members of ANZ LitLovers) that I’ve read more NZ fiction than I had thought.  Annamarie Jagose is a Kiwi, not an Australian author at all.  My confusion arises because Jagose spent some time as an academic at the University of Melbourne and was the winner of the 2004  Vance Palmer Prize for Fiction and shortlisted for the  Miles Franklin Literary Award for Slow Water (only losing out to Shirley Hazzard’s magnificent The Great Fire, so I can’t complain about that).   Across the ditch in her native land she also won the 2004 Deutz Medal for Fiction in the Montana New Zealand Book Awards for this book,  and I want to share my impressions of this most memorable story.

It’s a fictionalised account of the true story of William Yate, a clergyman who in 1836 travelled to New Zealand to take up his ministry, but aboard the Prince Regent fell in love and caused a scandal.  They were discreet, but once the ship landed in Sydney, petty jealousy led to revelations about what happened aboard and it ruined Yate’s career [1].

The book has an intriguing plot  – which I am being cagey about so as not to spoil anything!  It engaged me from beginning to end, but it was the prose that captivated me.  The story of the ship’s community is superb.  The times when the ship is becalmed, buffeted by gales and in real peril are all marvellously evoked, and I felt the cold winds and frequent soakings through the power of Jagose’s words.

Here is Sydney Harbour, glimpsed after four long months at sea:

The entrance into the harbour lay narrow between two prominent headlands, their gulled cliffs rising from a mild and milky ocean.  The passengers lined the sides, craning at the view – the whitewashed stone lighthouse on the southern head, and some structure at the cliff’s edge, a telegraph the doctor supposed, looking for all the world like a gallows with two fellows in red nightcaps close under.

All through the story with its sense of impending doom for Yate,  Jagose’s prose is curiously quaint, modern in its orientation and empathy, yet authentically 19th century in its sentence construction and vocabulary.  It is peppered with the argot of the sailors, the clergy and the class-conscious human cargo.   Mrs and Miss Button flirt endlessly with the ever-priapic fop Mr Armitage; Miss Bloomfield is forever imaged in my mind with a chunk of meat stuck between her filthy teeth while the doctor declines to remove it as a punishment for her dirty habits.  There is the ascetic Captain Arthur, mindful only of his ship, and the cabin-boy Hall, who grows from homesick longing for his mother to become cherished by the ship’s cook.  These days this cook’s nurturing of the boy, teaching him to harden his hands against the ropes and preparing potions to ward off sea-sickness, might label him as a paedophile, but in this novel this relationship is depicted as just part of the life at sea that Hall grows to love.   The Taylors are an odd couple indeed.  Mr Taylor is liverish, perhaps because of an ulcerated foot which refuses to heal, and he is much peeved by Yate’s neglect of him within Sydney’s fledgling society.

Truth is twisted and support for Yate  from unlikely sources  is suppressed by self-interest; but it is clear where Jagose’s sympathies lie despite the poignant ending.

It is a real pity that the audio book from Louis Braille Audio is prohibitively expensive because the narration by David Baldwin is superb.  I was lucky to be able to borrow this from my local library, and have listened to it twice as well as read the book.  Yes, I really, really liked this book!

[1] The Encyclopedia of New Zealand online has details of Yate’s life, but it will spoil the reading for you if you source it before reading the book.

©Lisa Hill

Author: Annamarie Jagose
Title: Slow Water
Publisher: Victoria University Press (Wellington) 2003
Source: Kingston Library


  1. […] for Fiction and was shortlisted for the Australian Miles Franklin Literary Award. (See my review here). Alas for her readers, these days Professor Annamarie Jagose is the University of Sydney’s […]


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