‘Out past the shallows, past the sandy-bottomed bays, comes the dark water — black and cold and roaring. Rolling out an invisible path …’
When I reviewed Favel Parrett’s second book, When the Night Comes, I made mention of the fact that Parrett understands many things, including water, very deeply. Her debut novel, Past the Shallows, is about the ocean, brothers and grief, and again, it was her delicate and careful observations that wedged a firm spot in my mind and heart.
In brief, it’s the story of two young brothers, Harry and Miles, who live with their father, an abalone fisherman, on the south-east coast of Tasmania. Their mother is dead and the boys are at the mercy of their father’s dark and violent moods.
Parrett’s story mimics the ebb and flow of tides, shifting between the present and events of the past. There’s a constant hum of tension provided by the boys’ alcoholic father, hunger and the dangers of the ocean – it culminates in a crushing blow, that is nothing short of soul-destroying. But the story is not entirely bleak – the relationships between the brothers, and between a handful of other characters (notably the elderly and reclusive George) are honest and tender.
“There were things that no one could teach you – things about the water. You just knew them or you didn’t and no one could tell you how to read it. How to feel it. Miles knew the water. He could feel it. And he knew not to trust it.”
By writing in the voices of Harry and Miles, Parrett captures the simplicity, vulnerability and stoicism of children – mentions of Milo and Butter Menthols, the joy of a showbag and the thrill of harmless tresspassing are interspersed with the boys cowering from their raging father, being cold and scared on the boat, and trying to put on a ‘brave face’. I don’t underestimate how difficult it is to write characters such as these – I put Parrett and fellow Australian author, Sonya Hartnett, on the highest pedestal for creating child characters that are so accurate, so honest and so desperate for love. And memorable – Harry and Miles will stay in your heart.
Fittingly, I read most of this book on the beach. Like Harry and Miles, I went home to a meal of steaming hot, salty fish and chips.