Bad things happen in Tasmania: from Marcus Clarke to Richard Flanagan and Carmel Bird, our novelists have been delivering stories inspired by the island’s ancient forests, wild seas and brutal history.
Favel Parrett is not a native but, in an interview last year, said she had lived in Hobart for seven years as a child.
And it is through the eyes of two children, 10-year-old Harry and 14-year-old Miles, that we are drawn into this tale of family tragedy set on a lonely stretch of Tasmania’s south-east coast.
Harry, Miles and older brother Joe lost their mother in a car accident one night several years ago. Their father, who struggles to make a living diving for abalone, is violently unhappy. The dangers of his trade, and his casual viciousness towards his children, are chillingly shown. Miles is forced to work on his father’s boat during school holidays, and when a key crew member is injured, it seems Miles’s schooling will be sacrificed for the family business.
Perrett deftly sketches the small community: 19-year-old Joe, who hasn’t lived at home since he was 13; the ineffectual Aunty Jean, struggling with her own grief; Harry’s friend Stuart and his mum, who live in a caravan; and George, a hermit whose terrible scars frighten the local children.
Too small – and too prone to seasickness – to go out on the boat with Miles and his father, Harry is left on his own during the day, and forges an unlikely friendship with George and his dog. But young as he is, Harry knows instinctively that this is not something to be shared with his father.
The family’s isolation, and the claustrophobia of the brothers’ situation, pulse through the novel. Joe has built his boat, ready to sail to freedom, but what can Miles and Harry do? The tenderness between the two younger brothers is rendered through small, everyday details: Harry preparing ‘the best cup of Milo ever’ one evening for an exhausted Miles; Miles hiding a shark egg at the beach for Harry to find.
One of the pleasures of the novel is its depiction of the natural world. This is a writer who knows the sea – its moods, its pleasures, and its danger. Here is Miles surfing:
The cold water bit at his hands and feet as he began the paddle. Winter brought massive swells, awesome to watch and not much fun to be in, but today the bluff was still like liquid mercury. Near perfect three-foot lines. The paddle was easy. The waves were easy. The ocean was at peace … Miles turned his head to the horizon and grinned. A good-sized line, maybe a four-footer, hit the reef and began to peel. Sometimes you didn’t have to move an inch. The shoulder of the wave lifted his board; he looked down the clean face and took the drop. Miles felt his bones. He carved along the wave nice and loose, flicked up with sharp cutbacks every so often to bring him back up onto the shoulder. He heard Joe hooting from the beach and he knew he was charging.
But the ocean has other moods, too:
There was something coming. Miles had felt it in the water. Seen it. Swell coming in steady, the wind right on it, pushing. It was ground swell. Brand new and full of punch – days away from its peak … It had even made Miles queasy, the way the boat rocked. The way the water rolled up under it. And he never got sick.
This is a beautifully written book. The spare prose carries the story like a swiftly moving current, but makes space for small moments of connection, too – Miles discovering Aunty Jean’s hoard of unused baby clothes; Harry buying a tin of tea for George. The climax, when it comes, is as breathtaking as it is inevitable. This is a heartbreaker of a novel, and bodes well for this young writer’s future.
Favel Parrett Past the Shallows Hachette Australia 2011 PB 272pp $26.99
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