Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 17, 2014

Deeper Water (2014), by Jessie Cole

Something rather odd happened when I finished reading Jessie Cole’s second novel last night.

Usually when I finish reading a book, I close the covers, and mull over it for a while.  I give it time to settle, like leaving a curry in the fridge overnight to give the flavours a chance to meld together.  But at the back of Deeper Water there is something I had never come across before: a section called Q & A with Jessie Cole – and the very first question is, ‘What do you think Deeper Water is about?’  And having spent 337 pages showing the reader what the novel is about, Jessie Cole proceeds to tell us.  (To be fair, I doubt if this concept was her idea.)

Like a fool, I read it, and it spoiled the book for me.   I was really, really cross.  I felt as if I were back at school, being told what to think about what I had read.  Because what the author thought this book was about, temporarily swamped what  thought it was about.  I had to stomp around the kitchen doing irrelevant housekeeping things for a long time this morning, before I could get the author’s earnest voice out of my head.

Deeper Water is the story of an innocent called Mema whose sheltered world on a bush block is disrupted by a stranger trapped there by floodwaters.  This man, Hamish, is an eco-consultant and his world is turned upside-down when he is marooned in a place where there is no internet or phone, and all his possessions are gone.  Mema finds herself attracted to Hamish, but her older and wiser sister and mother warn her off.  The characterisation is so good that the reader becomes as convinced as Mema that there may be a future for this relationship.  So yes, this is a (rather YA) story of sexual awakening, and yes, it’s an homage to getting in touch with the nature from which humans seem to be divorced.

But as discerning readers realise, authors often reveal more of themselves in their books than they know.  Deeper Water is a more interesting book than either the author or the creator of those inane Book Group Questions also at the back of the book seem to realise.  For once a book is out of the hands of its creator, it belongs to the reader, who makes of it what she will.  And I thought there was much more to this story than the rather overwrought sexual awakening of its rather improbable character.

FWIW, whether it was intended or not, I thought the book was about the prison of ignorance that parents can impose on their children.  How deciding to bring up their children in a certain way,  can limit their children’s opportunities, destroy their choices, and make them vulnerable.   The irony is that Mema’s male siblings escape the protective, womblike home as soon as they can, and they sever all contact too because they do not belong in it.  It is not that they are too wild, as Mema thinks, it is that they need their freedom and they want to be part of a wider world.

Mema recognises that her all-female world has left her unprepared for relationships, but has no idea how to resolve emotional love and an instinct for sex.  Meanwhile the reader wonders about the definition of masculinity that is evoked in this novel.  They are all Other: Frank, (would-be lover of her mother); Billy (would-be lover of Mema); Anja’s manic father, Jim; and Hamish the Stranger too, of course.  The sense of males as unreliable and dangerous explodes into aggression when the toddler Rory bites Mema, as if warning her that he too will become Other:

Rory bit me then, right on the soft part of my thigh.  I screeched, kicking out at him, ’cause I wasn’t expecting it, but he only bit down harder.  There was a scramble, all of us trying to get him out from under my skirt.  When he appeared he was red-faced and wild.  Mad as a cut snake, floundering around so much Sophie had to pin his arms down.  Mum handed Lila over to me.  My sister couldn’t manhandle Rory on her own, so the two of them dragged him off to the bedroom to give him a talking to.  Holding Lila in one arm, I lifted my skirt.  Rory hadn’t broken the skin, but his teeth marks were already turning a bright scarlet.  My thigh was swelling under my eyes, red and bruised.  I dropped my skirt again so I didn’t have to look at it and Lila started up her squalling.  I tucked her against my shoulder and – stranded there beside the kitchen sink – we cried. (p.321)

The other aspect that interested me was the way that the author explored the impact of isolating oneself from (i.e. rejecting) the trappings of modern life, especially the way that ‘being connected’ makes one dependent on its intrusive communication systems.  I remember reading with sadness that one of the victims of the Black Saturday bushfires had chosen not to listen to local radio.  She did not have a mobile phone.  She did not want the world intruding on her little piece of paradise, because for her, the whole point of living in a rural area was to be able to ignore what was happening in the rest of the world.  So she did not hear the warnings: she expected someone from the CFA to come knocking on her door to warn her.   Deeper Water, it seems to me,  makes a statement about the necessity to take responsibility and remain alert to potential threats to one’s way of life.  It makes no difference whether one lives in a city or the bush: none of us can afford to choose ignorance about decisions that are being made about the way we live.  And the politics of ‘green’ issues in rural areas can be every bit as destructive to the natural environment as fracking is said to be.

Now, if you read other reviews of Deeper Water you will notice straight away that they are effusive about the lush environment in which this story takes place.  Susan Chenery at the SMH commented on the sense of the author’s rural home as an untouched world and the characters being unsullied by the modern world.   She talks about the characters as simple people with a decency and a rough country kindness and how she felt when returning to her own reality that it seems to be missing something.  But Chenery chooses not to comment on Mema running the gauntlet of the town’s young men calling her a slut, nor about the one who starts to manhandle her over to the river because he thought she was up for it, like mother, like daughter.   She takes Jessie Cole at her word when she says that she created the world of Deeper Water as a more welcoming habitat than her previous novel as if Jim’s hut is not an horrific place of violence and as if Anja’s plight had not been so comprehensively ignored by the town.  But as I read it, there is a steely undercurrent in this novel that is very much in tune with Cole’s debut novel Darkness on the Edge of Town (see my review) – it certainly does not romanticise rural life.

Do read the review at Sally from Oz too, and the one at Candida Baker’s blog!

Author: Jessie Cole
Title: Deeper Water
Publisher: Fourth Estate, (Harper Collins), 2014
Source: Review copy courtesy of the author

Fishpond: Deeper Water


  1. What a great review Lisa. I am not a fan of those book club questions and I agree with you that, once a book is published, it belongs to the reader. I can’t stand all those earnest explanations. For a similar reason (and to a much lesser degree), I don’t like those introductions to short story collections that tell us what each story is about and what we are likely to glean from reading it. I much prefer to make up my own mind. I know there are a lot of song-writers who refuse to discuss their lyrics because they understand that meanings should be left for the listener to discern.
    Great review of what sounds like a terrific book. I will make sure I don’t read any of those end notes though.


    • Thank you, Karenlee! Good point about song writers, too, and I’ve read that most artists don’t like being asked what their art is ‘about’ because if they could describe their ideas in words, they wouldn’t express them in art!
      I had an interesting discussion with a friend yesterday who had read Liam Davison’s novels and she said that she didn’t get from them what I saw in them. It’s so true, isn’t it, that reading is such a personal activity and we all bring our own experiences to it. We latch onto things that other readers don’t find important at all, and we ignore things that they (and possibly the author) think are really important!


  2. Great review and my instinct is that your reading is the right one, I’m so intrigued (yet again) by this author. Thank you


    • Absolutely … where will she go next, I wonder!


  3. Great review, Lisa. Thanks very much for it.


  4. […] Lisa from ANZ Litlovers has got her review here […]


  5. NOW I can read your review :)

    I picked up on the fact that men were not the favored sex – even the beastly child biting her leg ;) it actually quite jarred me out of the flow. Although I didn’t get a sense at the time of the mother controlling her children, but it does make sense now you mention it. I put it down to her being an artistic airy fairy type.

    I was lucky that I didn’t get the Q&A in my version. I am sure it would have broken my mood too.


    • You read it on Net Galley?


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