Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 13, 2021

Skimming Stones (2021), by Maria Papas (Winner of the 2020 Hungerford Award)

At the jetty all these years later, something long past seemed to ripple through me in the same way a skimming stone sends waves long after it sinks. (p.143)

Skimming Stones is a beautifully written novel about the childhood experience of a sibling’s potentially fatal illness.  If you know anyone who’s had this experience, you probably know something of the conflicting emotions that siblings feel, long after the event.  Maria Papas captures these emotions superbly in a thoughtful, wise and wholly engaging story.

Grace, an oncology nurse in Perth with long suppressed memories of her little sister Emma’s leukaemia, finds these memories resurfacing when a child called Zoë has a medical crisis on the ward.  Grace takes a rare day off afterwards, to confront her demons and also to make a difficult decision about her current messy relationship.  So the narration and the settings alternate with ease between Grace’s childhood and her adult life.

She drives south from Perth to Lake Clifton,  one of her childhood haunts, near the home where her parents’ fragile marriage was tested by Emma’s cancer.  At the very beginning the family all went to Perth for the initial diagnosis and the harrowing treatment. Later, Grace went home with her father — a selfish, irresponsible, lazy man who put his own needs ahead of his family’s.  What really struck in my craw was that on her return after months away, the mother has to spend her days cleaning the grubby, neglected house because it was so crucial that the immuno-compromised Emma was not exposed to germs at that time.

What this mother could not restore was Grace’s equanimity.

Grace at this time lost all her certainties.  During the long absence she lost touch with her mother and missed the daily tenderness that she had always had.  She lost her language, the Greek mother-tongue that she heard and spoke only with her mother.  She lost the easy intimacy she’d had with Emma, and she lost faith in her father as well.  At school, she lost her identity: she was ‘the girl whose sister has cancer’.

Grace loves her little sister dearly, but she is frightened, alone and burdened with too much responsibility.  She also felt resentful and guilty…

Modern thrombolites in Lake Clifton, Western Australia (Wikipedia)

Nearby lives a woman called Harriet. childless, artistic and motherly.  With an ailing partner called Samuel, Harriet befriends Grace and provides the comfort and mothering that she needs.  Grace yearns for her parents’ marriage to be like this couple’s relationship:

In my house anger never softened so quickly.  Where I came from it lasted days and days and went on no end.  Anger reminded me of the moths near our porch light, the Christmas carols that drifted in from a neighbour’s house, and the smell of someone else’s barbecue. Anger was my mother pulling her clothes off their hangers, the clang of wire against the metal rod, and the contents of her wardrobe in the usual three piles: one for the bin, one for the poor, and one to keep.  It was the blotchiness of emotion on my mother’s face, the sound of my father’s car turning into the driveway late at night, and the daylight which came before any of us had the chance to sleep.  On those mornings, my mother put the cushions back on the couch and my father rubbed his shoulders and neck from a sore night spent on the lounge-room floor. (p.51)

Her parents have conflicting views about the state of this relationship.  Grace has vivid memories of this but the narrative is economical in conveying the terror:

‘Our relationship is miserable,’ my mother said over cereal and a hot cup of tea, and my father replied that it had moments of misery, only moments, and that there were good times too.  He touched my mother.  He rested his hands on her shoulders, kissed her crown, and then left for work as if there was no hole in our pantry door.’ (p.51)

The legacy of this dysfunctional relationship is that Grace has taken her mother’s advice to heart:

‘Make sure you get an education, okay.  A proper one.  Never put yourself in a situation where you depend on a man.’ (p.51)

Grace observes this unhappy home and yearns for another, but she also wants to have a mother who isn’t preoccupied by Emma all the time.  Her solace is the lake, where she is fascinated by its famous thrombolites, and also the forbidden place to which she escaped with Emma from troubles at home.

I was full of storytelling.  I inherited villages form my mother and local histories from my father, who had in turn absorbed the kind of schooling that began with lieutenants and admirals and ended with names like Peel, Herron and McLarty*. He told me the lake was out of bounds—not for swimming, not for walking, not for playing.  It was a forbidden place, the kind of place that swallowed children in muddy sand**.  That’s why we came—Emma and I—because we weren’t allowed. (p.48)

It is at the forbidden lake that an almost fatal crisis occurs.

In adulthood, Grace’s life is messy.  Having devoted her career to the comforting solace of life-saving work, she has met up again with Nate, who she met first as a fellow-sibling on the hospital sidelines.  She bonded with him twice at times when Emma was in extremis, and this connection leads her into an imprudent affair. All her self-doubts and uncertainties collide as she considers her future with or without him.

The City of Fremantle’s biennial Hungerford Award for an unpublished manuscript has brought to attention some of Australia’s most notable authors. Past recipients of the award who are reviewed on this blog include Madelaine Dickie, Brenda WalkerJay MartinGail JonesNatasha Lester, Jacqueline WrightRobert Edeson,  Donna Mazza, Simone Lazaroo and Alice Nelson.  Nathan Hobby’s The Fur is on my TBR, and I am waiting impatiently for his biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard due for release soon.  In 2020 the judges selected Skimming Stones by Maria Papas and it’s a worthy winner too…

*This is a graceful allusion to the environmental and Black history of Australia i.e. the massacres and dispossession of Indigenous people not taught to Grace’s father, and is indicative of the kind of heroism he admires.  Thomas Peel (1793 – 1865) was an early settler of Western Australia and part of the military force behind the Pinjarra massacre in 1834 of the indigenous Binjareb people. (See Wikipedia). Named for Irish emigrants and Isabella Herron, Herron is a suburb not far from Lake Clifton and Yalgorup National Park.   (See Wikipedia here, and State Heritage here in the box titled History).  Sir Duncan Ross McLarty, (1891 –  1962) was an Australian politician and the 17th Premier of Western Australia, credited with the industrial development of WA. (See Wikipedia here.)

** This is an allusion to the boating accident on Lake Clifton in which two of the Herron children died. (See State Heritage here).

Image credit: Lake Clifton thrombolites: SeanMack – Own work, CC BY 3.0,

Author: Maria Papas
Title: Skimming Stones
Cover art: Nada Backovic
Publisher: Fremantle Press, 2021
ISBN: 9781760990640, pbk., 202 pages
Review copy courtesy of Fremantle Press


  1. I am wondering how long I can resist the temptation to read this …


    • It really is a very beautiful book. Melancholy, but not in an overworked way. I think she’s definitely a writer to watch.


  2. I was at the (outdoor) event at Fremantle Arts Centre (two mins walk from where I live) where this winner was announced after all the nominees were introduced and did a reading. it was a bitterly cold night and I scuppered home as soon as the winner was named. Maybe the cold affected my brain because I had completely forgotten about it even though I know I had wanted to read the book at the time (which wasn’t yet published). Now I want to read it. and must see if the library has it in stock.

    I went to Lake Clifton last year on a day trip (all my pics are on Instagram) and it was the most magical place… the age of the thrombolites is astonishing.


    • I think I probably got an email about the winner… as I do sometimes for other winners and their unpublished manuscripts, but I never remember them. I need the book in my hand!
      Having said that, this is one of the best of this type of prize that there is, in terms of the resulting novel being good to read. More consistent than the Vogel IMO.
      BTW The judges in 2020 were Sisonke Msimang, Richard Rossiter and Brenda Walker, and the novel was originally called ‘I Belong to the Lake.’

      Liked by 1 person

      • This sounds really interesting on multiple levels – the story, the thrombolites’ setting. And they are great judges, I think.


  3. This sounds beautifully written and observed. Although I’ve often thought about the impact of a child when a sibling is seriously ill. I’ve never thought about what they subsequently carry into adulthood from that experience.


    • Well, inevitably the one who is ill gets more attention, and a child would need to be a saint not to feel jealous sometimes… and then feel terribly guilty for feeling resentful. But I think it comes back to being able to judge when to forgive yourself for all kinds of ‘crimes and misdemeanours’ that we inevitably do throughout our lives.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I’ve never been in that situation, not with my brothers, nor with my kids, not long-term like cancer. Thank goodness! I agree with you about the Hungerford award, it throws up some excellent winners (including Nathan, whom I have reviewed). I’ve also written about the so-called Battle of Pinjarra and another massacre a bit further south, associated with Georgianna Molloy’s husband.


    • I thought this was such a neat way of conveying this character’s failure to engage with the other side of his local history!


  5. […] You can read my review here. […]


  6. […] Western Australian voices. It was published late last year, and an appreciative early review from Lisa at ANZ LitLovers does justice to the novel’s many […]


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