I’m not particularly into fishing and nor have I ever visited the byways of Brisbane Water on the Central Coast of New South Wales (although from a hydrological point-of-view, it sounds like my kind of place), and yet, I identified with much of Vicki Hastrich’s memoir, Night Fishing.
Essays covering a range of topics from stingrays and aquariums to the acquisition of a bathyscope and her grandfather’s welding business, are loosely linked to fishing and Hastrich’s trips to the family holiday house on an inlet near Woy Woy. Each essay is overlaid with Hastrich’s elegant observations about family, nature, and writing and the result is cohesive and deeply pleasing.
At night, tucked in bed and daubed with calamine lotion, we listened to the parents having a few beers in the kitchen and playing cards; the cheerful noise of friends.
Some essays relate wholly to the theme of fishing – for example, a superb account of the glitzy Sydney Boat Show is late in the book, after the reader has already grown to love the Squid, Hastrich’s ‘…bashed and bomby’ fibreglass dinghy, perfectly suited for puttering around the estuaries.
In the title essay, Night Fishing, Hastrich describes the disorientation she felt being in her boat at night when she knows every inch of the coastline by day. The essay touches on a theme that runs through much of the collection – that what is in plain sight ‘…is often the most mysterious and astonishing’.
Some essays are unexpected but certainly not out of place – in The History of Lawn Mowing, Hastrich considers shell middens and the impact of white settlement (our asbestos garbage mixed with fragments of mollusc shells), and the writing legacy of author Georgia Blain. She bobs from one idea to the next in a gentle rhythm, her observations attentive. Likewise, in The Nature of Words, Hastrich explores the history of Roget’s Thesaurus and the importance of Indigenous languages, framing her thoughts within the idea of taxonomy, order and disorder.
Peter Mark Roget was born in London. His father was Swiss – hence the surname, which, as an Australian child of the suburbs, I’ve never felt entirely confident pronouncing. The year was 1779. Less than a decade before, Lieutenant James Cook had dropped the anchor of the Endeavour into the shallow waters of Botany Bay, an act which would eventually lead to the disruption and destruction of many of the continent’s original languages.
My favourite essay, The Tomb of Human Curiosity, describes a fishing outing Hastrich planned with her brother, Rog. It’s a special trip – the first time they’re experiencing low tide on the water and, given the estuaries and mudflats, timing of their trip had to be exact.
From the bar at the ocean mouth through to the broadwater upstream, the water pours through channels, past sandbars and mangrove islands, into bays deep and shallow, repeatedly squeezing and spreading between landforms. My brother and I find the movements fascinating. How could we not, having both, as children, daydreamed on wharves, watching the current slide by, forever making then undoing itself in paisley whorls.
They discover a ‘meadow’ of ribbon sea grass and, perched in the Squid, she says of the grass –
They bend over at the surface, but wherever tiny edges pierce the surface tension, light catches, so that we sit in an acre of sparkles.
In describing what they see, Hastrich also captures her relationship with her brother – small gestures, snatches of conversation, companionable silences say so much about their shared understanding and love for where they are.
There were moments in this quiet, reflective book that gave me sharp stabs of nostalgia – her love of her holiday house (not the house per se, but the place) mirrored my feelings about the fibro shack at McCrae that dominated 43 of my summers. I grieve everything associated with it, most particularly the time with my grandparents and cousins.
Likewise, Hastrich’s mention of the alternative ‘rules’ kids have under the watch of fathers on holiday – their cavalier approach to driving the boat and fishing ‘the hole’ matched my memories of my dad taking me ‘out the back’ of the surf, where the thrilling swell of the ocean heaved my floating body up and down.
The images of childhood are mythic, steering thought and lives in ways not always easy to discern.
Some people avoid memoirs because they are perceived as a platform for self-indulgence – this memoir does the opposite and Hastrich has delivered a book that tells her story (exquisitely) and yet is firmly outward looking.
I spent hours looking. At the mullet, the jellies, the sunlight ladders, the eddies. At toadfish going about their obsequious snooping.