Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 23, 2017

The Gulf (2017), by Anna Spargo-Ryan

I’m not sure how I came across Anna Spargo-Ryan’s second novel The Gulf: I might have read a review about it in the weekend papers.  Even when I brought it home from the library I still wasn’t sure about it, and I left it neglected and unread almost until it was time to take it back.  Because, yes, the blurb promised Grim Australia #101 and I am rather tired of that.  I also suspected that it was YA with *yawn* a dawning teen relationship.  (Mine is the generation that read Jane Austen in our teenage years and where the relationship under the pen was about the complexities of a relationship, not *double yawn* tentative yearnings and exploratory kissing.)

However, the book turned out to overcome my reservations.  It’s about two children living with a mother who specialises in failed relationships, and what happens when the latest man turns out to be a real low-life.  They are poor, but getting by, and the kids have learned to expect the man-in-her-life to be temporary, but this time they are uprooted from Adelaide and taken to the small coastal town of Port Flinders (which looks rather nice in a desolate kind of way) where things go from bad to worse (except for the dawning teen relationship).  There is nothing new about any of this – any teacher or social worker could put faces to this script which is depressingly familiar.

What makes the novel work is the characterisation of Ben, who is ten years old, precociously clever and lovable in an irritating way.  Possibly autistic in the way that he fails to read the reactions of others, he chatters incessantly and in excessive detail about things that interest him.  He does this with everybody, impacting on all his potential relationships, but at home, he does it partly as a way of entering the consciousness of a parent who would otherwise ignore him because she is so preoccupied with Jase.  (Yes, Jason.)  Ben’s sister Skye, who’s sixteen, loves him to bits and they are equally protective and supportive of each other, which they need to be because neither of them fit in anywhere.

The complication arises when Skye realises that she needs to get Ben away from Jase (who #understatement doesn’t find Ben lovable at all) but the escape plan involves a train to Adelaide and separation from the dawning teen relationship.  I’m not mocking, because I know that teen love seems real, and even more real for somebody who’s only ever really been loved by a kid six years younger than herself.  What this separation does is to show in clear contrast that there is no moral equivalence between the teenage witness to violence and the adult one.   As others come to know about what’s going on, we hear them say, ‘That’s not right’, and that’s the truth of it.  It is not right to stand by and allow a brute licence to do what he likes.   I like the way this author makes the reader see that Skye will not be held to ransom by her love for anyone else.  In this novel it’s Skye who is determined to have a mature relationship or none at all, unlike her mother, who time and again has sacrificed her children in pursuit of an adolescent dream.  This unambiguous recognition of what’s ‘right’ is achieved through the narration which is entirely from Skye’s perspective, and the reader is not invited to think about the mother’s motives or speculate about the backstory which has made her the way she is.

Skye does not agonise over leaving her mother to it, because while she pities her mother, she is acutely conscious of the way her mother has betrayed them all.   This awareness of maternal betrayal is authentic, because teenagers are, as we know, very good at judging others.  Skye’s fear of being separated from her brother if social welfare services get involved is realistic too, but unlike other novels peddling disinformation in this genre, Spargo-Ryan has delivered an unsentimental resolution which shows the complexities faced by the caring professions when dealing with dysfunctional families like this.

You can read an excerpt here.

Author: Anna Spargo-Ryan
Title: The Gulf
Publisher: Picador (Pan Macmillan), 2017
ISBN: 9781743537176
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: The Gulf


  1. Enjoyed your analysis of children at risk. When I was in primary school we went on a (rare) family holiday to nearby Port Broughton. Dad made us go home early because the beach was muddy he said but probably because he hated being in a boarding house.


    • Because of overhearing things?


      • I was going to say, because he hated people, but really because he hated common people


        • Well, it is depressing to see people making a mess of their lives…


  2. […] here for my review of Stone Girl, and here for my review of The Gulf. See Goodreads reviews of Things My Father Taught Me here and  Things Nobody Knows But Me […]


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