Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 26, 2013

Stella’s Sea (2013), by Sally-Ann Jones

Stella's SeaThere were rather a lot of unsatisfactory marriages in this novel, and I found myself wondering about the abandoned husband rather more often than the author probably intended, but Stella’s Sea is an interesting light read, perhaps for the long lazy days of summer.

Stella Netowski has run away from her husband, her work as his medical receptionist and her home in York, W.A.  to Cottesloe, a beachside suburb of Perth, where, conveniently, she has an investment property bereft of tenants.  Her daughter, Miff, a wild and wilful adolescent, has been killed in a motorbike accident and this has been a trigger for Stella to leave her unsatisfactory marriage.  Her husband is a doctor who doesn’t really like people much, and prefers the natural world to the human one as long as it doesn’t leap messily into his life like the kangaroo which bounds into his car one night.

Stella’s parents had an unsatisfactory marriage too.  They were British migrants, and the mother hated Australia from the start.  She drowned her sorrows in the bottle, and it’s the somewhat idealised father, Pross, who mothered Stella and her brother Jay.  (He’s overseas, physically and emotionally remote).  But Pross is now in a nursing home after a stroke, and not able to offer the comfort that Stella needs to resolve her anguished grief.

Stella, who seems not to have had any supportive friends in York, in Cottesloe attracts the notice of Deirdre, a young mother (who has an unsatisfactory husband too), and Ari, a man who also likes walking along the beach.  Stella’s not looking after herself, and she dresses oddly, in bits and pieces of bee-keeping gear.  Her only reason for living is her daughter’s little dog, Pom, and when she forgets to eat, shop, or even to get out of bed, it is Pom’s needs that propel her out into the world.  It is interest in her odd behaviour that compels Ari and Deirdre to initiate contact with this sad, silent woman, and it is pity for her that sustains the relationships for quite some time.

The story is written in four seasons, starting with Summer, with very brief named episodes which alternate between Stella’s back story and Ari’s.  It is well-constructed, revealing just enough to keep the reader interested without seeming artificially stretched to achieve a pattern.  There were, however, some plot holes which tested credibility a bit…

Ari, the inevitable love interest, has an unsatisfactory marriage which lands him in gaol when he takes his revenge by committing a fraud on the business partner who stole his wife’s affections.  He’s been alone for a very long time and he shares Stella’s love of the natural environment which enables him to talk enthusiastically to fill up her silences.  But the back story of his parents’ unsatisfactory marriage – although intriguing while the tale is unravelling – relies too much on the reader acquiescing in the characterisation of binary opposites and a crude deception which is never tested by the too-gullible family.  Without revealing spoilers, let’s just say that there’s no explanation of how a marriage based on betrayal, deception and loathing overcame that revulsion sufficiently to enable Ari’s conception!  And the motivation for Ari’s aunt in Rome to reveal all this at the end of her life isn’t clear either.  Perhaps book groups might enjoy puzzling that out…

I  think some book groups might also enjoy unpacking the redemptive symbols of Catholicism in a candle-lighting episode, the notions of Stella’s guilt and sin, and also the missing husband with the strange, rather repellent name of Orax*.   Presumably he’s grieving and guilt-stricken too. More than anything else, I think there could be robust discussion about the parenting of Miff and her character in general.  There are book group notes at the publisher’s website.

The press release notes that this novel is a stylistic departure for Sally-Ann Jones, a freelance journalist who has previously published romance novels.  Perhaps it was because I knew this that I noticed repeated incidents where Stella and Ari draw back from touching each other, hesitate to ask the sensitive question that picks at the emotional scab, and retreat from saying out loud what they are tentatively feeling in their hearts.  The reader never has any doubt that this friendship will blossom into something more but it takes the cleansing power of the sea to free them both for a future with hope.

The cover is horrible.  You can see the pores on the poor woman’s nose which is sticking up and looking unattractively like something else superimposed in the middle of her face.  Is it a bald man with hairy shoulders?  Why didn’t they use some of the imagery of the beach that was so carefully evoked in the story?  Try to ignore it.

The novel was launched by award-winning Australian author Brenda Walker to whom the book is dedicated, and you can read an extract on the publisher’s website.

*Orax was a planet staffed by slave labour in Star Wars.  Bet you never guessed I was a fan, eh?!

Author: Sally-Ann Jones
Title: Stella’s Sea
Publisher: UWAP (University of Western Australia Press) 2013
ISBN: 9781742583570
Source: Review copy courtesy of UWAP
Fishpond: Stella’s Sea

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