I’m not sure it was a completely conscious decision but, looking back, I can almost pinpoint the moment I gave up on ‘literary fiction’. My book club had chosen yet another humourless, droning account of despair for our monthly discussion and I quietly dreamed up an excuse to leave the club rather than face another bout of depression. In the intervening half-dozen years I have rarely dipped my toes back into the literary end of the reading pool and those few experiences, such as this year’s reading of THE SLAP, have not left me wanting more.
And so it was with some trepidation that I picked up Favel Parrett’s much talked-about, Miles Franklin Award-shortlisted debut novel PAST THE SHALLOWS, discussions of which almost invariably include words like dark, moody and haunting.
I was engrossed from the outset and unexpectedly read the book in a single sitting, almost physically unable to tear my eyes away. I was helped along by the fact it is a deliciously short novel in this age of doorstop-sized tomes. It is, as Wendy Harmer described when the novel received The First Tuesday Bookclub’s treatment, like reading a poem. A beautiful poem that you want to re-read, savour and quote bits of forever more.
It is the story of three brothers – Joe, Miles and Harry – who are growing up in an isolated fishing community in southern Tasmania. With their mother having died in a car accident their alcoholic father virtually ignores them all, except Miles whom he expects to work on the family’s small fishing boat even though he is only 13. Although older, Joe has moved away from the family home for reasons that only become clear well past the point of spoilers. Motion-sickness prone Harry is nine and, as he can’t go out on the boat, is left to fend for himself during the long school holiday days which leads to a series of small but compelling adventures. For me at least the book is the story of these boys: their inner lives, their dreams and their relationships with each other.
The story unfolds from the dual perspectives of Harry and Miles and Parrett does seem to have realistically captured their voices – fearful, protective, excitable, yearning to be older and…elsewhere. While I cannot personally attest to her ability to show the world from the perspective of a young boy I am able to confirm that she has depicted the sibling relationship to perfection; capturing the competing forces of fierce, overprotective love and extreme annoyance that one feels towards one’s siblings (often at exactly the same moment).
Though this story is sad it does not weigh the reader down with heartache or despair and I’m not sure I can articulate what it is that, for me, made this sad book a lovely reading experience while so many other sad books leave me contemplating bringing about my own oblivion as a blessed release. Perhaps it is that there are moments of joy for the boys, Miles’ contentment in finding the perfect wave while surfing or Harry’s delight in suddenly having enough money to buy showbags for his brother and best friend, which alleviate the sadness. Or it might be the brevity and things left unsaid. For this is not a book that dwells. It glides quickly from one moment to the next, often encapsulating a major idea or plot point in a single line. I think it is this element that made the book feel like poetry to me because each sentence…each word even…seemed like it had been carefully selected and placed. Nothing wasted.
PAST THE SHALLOWS is one of those increasingly rare books that left me wanting more (rather than fervently wishing there’d been less). It explores important, heavy themes without inducing clinical depression in the reader. Alongside its central sadness there is beauty in the natural environment brought stunningly to life and hope in the irrepressible effervescence of the boys. Reading it was an absolute treat.
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I promised myself that I would dabble outside my reading comfort zone when I signed up for the Australian Women Writers Challenge and although it’s taken me nearly all year to develop the courage to include some literary fiction I am chuffed to have done so. If it weren’t for the challenge I’d have missed this treat which sounds to me like a good reason for you to sign up for next year’s challenge - who knows what treat you might find for yourself? For those keeping score this is my 16th book for the challenge (which officially ended when I hit 10 books but I’ll keep going until the end of the year).
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My rating 4.5/5
Publisher Hachette Australia 
Length 251 pages
Source I bought it
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