Favel Parrett, Past the Shallows (Hachette Australia 2011)
I had three compelling reasons for fast-tracking Past the Shallows to the top of my TBR pile. Favel Parrett is a friend of my novelist niece, Edwina Shaw, and Edwina gave me the book as a Christmas present (‘Read it and weep,’ she said). I met Favel at the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards dinner last year, for this book was shortlisted, and was charmed. And I’ve recently signed up with the Australian Women Writers Challenge to read a certain quota of AWWs in 2013. And there was an additional softener: it’s short.
The book tells the story of three brothers and their father, who makes a marginal living as a dubiously legal abalone fisherman in southern Tasmania. The action unfolds in the long shadow cast by the death of the boys’ mother in a car accident some years earlier, and is seen in alternating chapters through the eyes of the two younger brothers, Miles and Harry. It’s Tim Winton territory: brothers growing up with the splendour and terror of the sea, in a family racked by emotional turmoil. Maybe I shouldn’t put the mockers on a young writer by saying so out loud, but I found the people and the world of this novel more convincing, more demanding of my compassion, than I ever have Winton’s; and the writing is more direct, draws attention to itself less, and allows for broader sympathies. The father is violent, irrational and dangerous, but neither the boys nor we lose sight of the grinding forces and bitter blows that have made him that way. The ocean is a place of pleasure and exhilarating challenge – Miles goes surfing with the eldest brother, Joe, while Harry hunts for treasures in the tidewrack. But it’s also the site of hardship, as in Miles’s exhausting work on his father’s abalone boat, and terror, especially in a climactic storm scene. You could probably read the book as a meditation on the ocean, with the human story there just to keep us reading: Favel Parrett writes about surfing, seamanship and heavy seas with a kind restrained precision that manages to suggest, and – very occasionally – explicitly invoke something like awe.
I haven’t mentioned the boys’ ages. It’s a measure of the book’s fineness that we’re not told how old they are until maybe halfway into the story. Instead, we’re left to work it out for ourselves from their preoccupations, their different strategies or dealing with the poverty and neglect, and their different degrees of vulnerability and protectiveness, innocence and savvy, openness and quiet desperation.
Terrible things happen in this story, and there are a number of revelations about terrible things in the past, but for me the book’s emotional power doesn’t lie there so much as in the brothers’ mutual tenderness, and even then not so much in the big moments – which are operatic in scale, but not overblown in the telling – as in tiny, poignant gestures.
My copy has half a dozen stickers on the cover boasting of prizes and shortlistings. I concur with all those judging panels. It also has pages of notes up the back for book groups. I didn’t read them: does anyone really want to have a questionnaire waiting for them when they emerge back into the shallows from deeps like this?