Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 15, 2017

A Sea-Chase (2017), by Roger McDonald

Roger McDonald, one of my favourite authors, has a rare ability to transport the reader to unfamiliar worlds.  For me, he did this most notably in When Colts Ran when I found myself in the Outback observing his dissection of contemporary bush masculinity, but I was also transfixed by his depiction of a man sorting out his identity in Shearer’s Cook and by his exploration of loyalty and betrayal in colonial Australia in the Miles Franklin winner The Ballad of Desmond KaleIn A Sea-Chase, his latest novel, the reader discovers the compulsive world of competitive sailing.  It’s very good, very good indeed…

A Sea-Chase is also a love story, but not merely a romance because there are other kinds of love involved.  The central character Judy Compton thinks herself a bystander in her parents’ marriage: Raymond Compton is an idiosyncratic vegetable-grower on marginal land and her mother Dr Elizabeth Darke is a famous geneticist.  Judy questions her mother’s love in particular because her childhood was impacted by Elizabeth’s career, especially when she was palmed off on the Salvos so that her mother could live away from home in the single-women’s quarters at the AGS, do her PhD, go slack on her mothering.

The events of Judy’s childhood, with their handings-over and movings-around, so big in her mind, were episodes in the building of two other lives, just a few brief months long… (p. 52)

McDonald explores the love of long-standing friends too, and a fond spot in the heart for a first love, and how these are sometimes the source of suspicion in new relationships.  And then there is the passion for doing something you love, and separate to that, for some issue that you care about, and how that impacts on relationships.

Judy is a child of the inland, whose concept of the sea is the inland sea that forms when ephemeral rivers burst their banks and flood the vast flat plains of the outback.  But discovering that she was wholly unsuited to a career as a teacher, she found herself in Sydney and captivated as much by the ocean as she is by Wes Bannister, another protégé of Ken Redlynch, a most interesting character whose obsession with flogging his pet invention – a teaching machine – derails a relationship too.  As before in McDonald’s fiction, it’s when a character is alone in remote Australia that insight comes:

It came to Judy from nowhere, into the hot, square Silver Springs hut that night, lit by a hissing Tilley lamp and clicking with night insects, that she was ashamed of Ken’s machines.

She was ashamed that the Ken she admired and revered, who she loved, really, could ever have imagined that the contraptions worked and would be taken on. He shamed her by making her obliged to help him.  She shamed herself by helping him. (p.56)

(Does anyone else remember teaching machines?  I ‘invented’ one myself in the 1970s when I was at Teachers College learning to teach electrical circuits as part of the primary science component.  My contraption was for teaching mental arithmetic and lights flashed if a kid plugged a cord into the correct socket. In those days, we thought children would be excited by it, and indeed, my five-year-old son was, for about a minute.  But hey, I got a High Distinction for it, though that was because my father did the carpentry.  I wish I had a photo of it!)

Judy and Wes are brought together by a love of competitive sailing, but true love runs no more smoothly than the waters of the Tasman Sea.  The story takes us to New Zealand, a setting that’s new for McDonald, I think, though I haven’t read everything he’s published. Not yet, anyway. I still have two more on the TBR…

There are some heart-stopping moments to propel the narrative along, especially if you were paying attention during the 1980s when the Rainbow Warrior set out to stop French nuclear testing in the Pacific, and if you remember any of the ocean rescues of lone sailors.  I’ll leave it to the blurb to have the final word:

A Sea-Chase is a novel that vividly tracks ambition, self-realisation and lasting love, tied up in a sea story.  The idea that nobody who sets off to do something alone – without family, friends, rivals and a pressing duty to the world – ever does so alone, finds beautiful, dramatic expression in Roger McDonald’s tenth, and most surprising novel.

2018 is going to be a difficult year for the awards judges because there are new books from some of our finest writers.  As well as this one, I’ve already reviewed Brian Castro’s Blindness and Rage; Kim Scott’s Taboo; Alec Patric’s Atlantic Black; Michelle de Kretser’s The Life to Come; and on my TBR jostling for first position are:  Richard Flanagan’s First Person; Alex Miller’s Passage of Love;  and Steven Carroll’s A New England Affair.  (Sofie Laguna who won the MF in 2015 has a new novel too: it’s called The Choke but I disliked One Foot Wrong, and abandoned The Eye of the Sheep, so since the new one apparently covers the same grim territory I know it’s not for me).  But adding to this stellar cast of previous MF winners there are a couple of debut novelists who spring to mind: there is Terra Nullius by Claire G Coleman; and also The Last Days of Jeanne d’Arc by Ali Alizadeh.  No doubt as the awards come closer there will be more discussion about this!

©Lisa Hill

Author: Roger McDonald
Title: A Sea-Chase
Publisher: Vintage (Penguin Random House), 2017
ISBN: 9780143786986
Review copy courtesy of Penguin Random House

Available from Fishpond: A Sea-chase


  1. I haven’t read a McDonald yet – I did take When Colts Ran out of the library once but didn’t get to it in time. Where is the best place to start, do you think?


    • When Colts Ran is my favourite, I think. It was the foundation for me, of all the others that I’ve read.


      • Thanks. Hopefully I’ll get to it soon.


  2. I got all Roger McDonalded out around 1915, and there are lots of good single handed sailor books by single handed sailors, though my favourite is of the guy who sailed in circles in the Atlantic while sending in optimistic position reports from all round the world before disappearing.


    • In that case, she said firmly, it is time to rediscover the magic of his books! Try Shearer’s Cook…


    • I’ll try! My next review is Daisley, Coming Rain. I read your review – and cited it – after I was done, but I’m afraid we’re a long way apart. Feel free to off. The review after that, next Fri, you’ll enjoy.


      • Oh no! Say it isn’t so, don’t tell me you didn’t like it!


  3. My new boss is a British championship sailor; maybe I should read this 😉


    • It does convey the magic of sail, even to someone like me whose two sailing experiences consist of (a) upending the boat, a little one, in the middle of Port Phillip Bay and (b) running aground a different one, a much bigger one, in Chinaman’s Creek down at Metung.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. […] A Sea-Chase, by Roger McDonald […]


  5. […] A Sea-Chase (2017, by Roger McDonald […]


  6. I have read McDonald’s previous books with great enjoyment, especially “Shearer’s Motel”, but I seem to be in a minority of one in disliking “A Sea-Chase” – so much that I nearly gave up before the end. For me the two main characters, the hysterical Judith and the psychopathic Wes, were unsympathetic, and the minor characters were poorly-sketched cliches. The endless technical terms concerning boats and sailing were irritating. McDonald is as usual at his best when describing the Australian bush but in this book we get precious little of that. Pity.


    • Oh, that’s a pity, it’s not nice when you feel disappointed by an author you’ve previously liked. I felt that way about Alex Miller’s most recent book, but lots of other people liked it, so once again it’s a case of books appealing to different people for different reasons.


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