Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 28, 2021

The Beach Caves, by Trevor Shearston

Here I am writing this review in December, just itching to tell you about this superb new novel from Trevor Shearston, and I can’t because of the publisher’s embargo.  By the time this post is published on the date I’m scheduling it in advance, I’ll have read a dozen other books, but I won’t have forgotten this one.

The Beach Caves is a deceptively innocent title: this is a novel that reeks of jealousy, betrayal, and guilt.  Part I begins in the summer of 1970-71 with a team of archaeologists working a dig on the New South Wales South Coast.  They are poised to make remarkable discoveries about Aboriginal lifestyles in the late Holocene era.  Aled Wray and Marilyn Herr, a husband-and-wife collaboration, lead the team which includes their PhD students Annette Cooley and Sue Klima.  The outsider is Brian Harpur, who’s an engineering student fulfilling his parents’ ambitions, not his own.

It is Brian who by chance discovers the new site offering exciting possibilities, but the find fractures the cohesion of the team along fault-lines determined by Aled and Marilyn’s professional competitiveness. Shearston depicts with forensic precision Aled’s assumption that he should dominate: this is the 1970s when men in  western societies were having their precedence challenged by feminism, and those of us who were challenging the same assumptions on the domestic front as well as at work, will remember that not all concessions were made gracefully, and some men could not cope with being challenged at all.

Annette and Sue have to make their choices knowing that their PhD supervision is at stake.  And when one of the team goes missing and the team breaks up in distress, some of the group have their choices constrained by the Vietnam conscription ballot: they could defer their national service only for as long as they are students.  Dropping out of university means being forced to serve in a war that by this time is generally recognised as morally wrong. (Conscription and Australia’s participation in the war ended in 1972 when the ALP came to power after 25 years of Liberal Party rule).

However, it is Annette’s decision to intervene in the police investigation that drives the novel.  By chance she sees something that might or might not be relevant, but her behaviour is driven not by any moral imperative but by jealousy.  She had thought that Brian was interested in her. She wants to punish him.

In Part II, 2005-2006, the ramifications of that decision are laid bare when the mystery of the disappearance is revealed and the coroner’s open finding is overturned.  Annette by this time is married with children, but she is forced to confront her past self and the consequences of her actions.  This is the part of the novel which invites reflection and will engage thoughtful book groups: to whom, and how, can restitution be made after so many years?  Is apology or explanation even possible?  Is it better to accept the truth as others believe to be, if that’s what gives them healing?

Other issues up for discussion include the ethics of archaeology as it was practised in the 1970s and in general.  Even then, there were rules and legal obligations, which — as we see in the novel — get in the way of ambition.  But today there are also legislated cultural protections which were not in place in the 1970s so some sequences in the novel seem quite shocking.

Trevor Shearston writes beautiful prose, and is master of the landscape he portrays.  He also has a grasp of the longevity of the scars on opponents of the Vietnam War which is rare:

Annette knew his past, but hadn’t known how deep his contempt ran until the Subaru was stolen.  He’d refused to report the theft.  Instead, he’d got on his motorbike and cruised laneways, old factory sites, the railway yards, until he found it, four nights later, stripped and up on blocks, in a dead-end behind the cement works in Erskineville.

He rang the insurance company, but it was she who had to go to the police.  The two on the desk said nothing, but Annette saw in their faces when Brent’s name came up that so had his history.  At twenty, he’d spent fifteen months being moved from safe house to safe house, twice having to jump from a window, once lying for an entire winter’s night up a stormwater drain, before he, and others who’d refused to register for conscription were quietly taken off the ‘wanted’ lists.  Brent had never forgiven the police their willingness to be co-opted.  Nor their brutality at anti-war demonstrations.  He could still name individual detectives who’d hunted him.  (p.255)

This is a superb novel, which I expect to see in shortlists in due course.

Trevor Shearston is the author of Something in the Blood, (1979); Sticks That Kill (1983, on my TBR), White Lies, (1986); ConcertinasA Straight Young Back, (2000); Tinder, (2002); Dead Birds, (2007) and Hare’s Fur (2019, see my review). His novel Game, (2013) about the bushranger Ben Hall, was longlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award (see my review) and shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction, and the Colin Roderick Award. He lives in Katoomba, in the Blue Mountains.

Author: Trevor Shearston
Title: The Beach Caves
Publisher: Scribe Publications, 2012
ISBN: 9781925849868, pbk., 332 pages
Review copy courtesy of Scribe Publications.

Available direct from Scribe, from good bookshops everywhere, and from Fishpond. But please note that contrary to my previous advice, Fishpond appear to have modified their free postage policy for Australia and New Zealand and may now charge for it depending on what you buy, what it weighs and where you live, so do check before buying: The Beach Caves.

 


Responses

  1. Straight onto my list!

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  2. Thanks Lisa. This one sounds fascinating. I don’t know of much fiction written about the Vietnam call-up. I’ll definitely check out this one.

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    • Hi Robyn, there isn’t much that I know of either, apart from Shell* by Kristina Olsson; R&R by Mark Dapin; Seeing the Elephant by Portland Jones; A Loving Faithful Animal by Josephine Rowe; and Summer’s Gone* by Charles Hall. I’ve asterisked the ones that are not from the damaged Vietnam Vet PoV but rather about the conscription issue and the protest movement.
      It’s bizarre really. A momentous period in our history that still resonates among us and yet it barely registers in our fiction.
      But I should add that it is only a side issue in this book. I picked up on it because I have ‘skin in the game’ so to speak.

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      • I have a good friend who was an anti-Vietnam activist and is hoping to publish a book about her experiences during and after the war, and the connections she made with veterans.
        I’m interested, too, in the issues around archaeology, in part because I’m married to a man who does archaeology without digging (because the site is in Turkey and no permit possible for non-Turks). It’s fascinating how much he can discover about the early centuries CE from inscriptions, land formation, texts, etc.
        So, it sounds like a book for me!

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        • It sounds like it ticks all your boxes!
          How frustrating for your husband… I can’t imagine…
          My ‘skin in the game’ is the Ex was a reluctant conscript and The Spouse was a leading light in the Draft Resisters’ Union. When i was doing Professional Writing and Editing (which I never finished) I started a history which began with his reflections. It was going to be interviews with people in his circle reflecting on how it impacted short and long term on them (parents, girlfriend, fellow-activists &c). His reflections have been used in some secondary schools as a resource, but I delayed too long in progressing it and now some of the people I meant to include are dead.

          Liked by 1 person

  3. This is another not to miss. The Vietnam War had a profound effect on me and I was not active in any way being occupied in child-rearing of four. But it lifted my political awareness rapidly and was probably the catalyst in the ending of my marriage. It’s a pity there is not more fiction around this very important historical moment in Australia.

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    • It’s strange, isn’t it? It split families down the middle, leaving long-lasting scars, impacted on careers and opportunities, and yet there’s this silence about it.

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  4. Sounds fab. Will look for this in my local indie.

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    • It was so frustrating not to be able to post my review till now!

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  5. I’ve added this to my list, too!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I look forward to seeing what you think of it on your blog:)

      Liked by 1 person

  6. “Shearston” rang a bell. Gary Shearston had a minor hit years ago with an odd version of I Get a Kick out of You. His bio says he was born in northern NSW in 1939 and he was unable to work in the USA due to his opposition to the Vietnam War.
    Very scant details for Trevor Shearston but he was born in 1946. Conscription for the Vietnam war began in 1965, so he would have been 20 for one of the early ballots.
    Now I’m wondering were they brothers.

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    • I don’t know.
      Perhaps if someone who knows him sees this, they can enlighten us.

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  7. This book has a lot in it. I remember the Vietnam draft in America. It was the night of my wedding shower and my to be husband’s fate hung in the balance. Not a night I remember fondly.

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    • I don’t know about in America, but here they were drafted when they were 20, and didn’t even have the vote. It was a terrible thing to do and yet people who did have the vote, voted for it time and again. I hope their consciences hurt now, I really do.

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  8. I have Hare’s fur on my TBR because of you, but I still haven’t read it. I should really read it first!

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    • It’s such a lovely book, Sue, I feel nostalgic every time I think of it.

      Liked by 1 person


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