I pushed the door open a crack and peeked in. The room was full, only scattered seats around the room, and I didn’t want to make a disturbance.
I pushed a bit harder and the usher on the end of a row jumped up and opened the door for me, pointing to a lone empty seat a couple of rows ahead of her. I ducked down, trying not to attract any attention or distract the three young women on the podium.
I needn’t have worried. The audience was captivated by the considered, melodious voices of Favel Parrett and Brooke Davis discussing writing ‘Through the Eyes of a Child’ – creating a child protagonist in an adult novel – with Courtney Collins. In the Sunday morning session at Newcastle Writers Festival there was an atmosphere of calm, of depth, and of respect for all three women. Each had an air of being acquainted with the grim side of life without succumbing to cynicism, and a maturity I’d expect from women many years older.
I read Favel Parrett’s Past the Shallows before the books by Collins or Davis for aesthetic reasons unconnected to literary quality. Its format was smaller, the type large and easy on eyes that were overtired at the time, and I loved the feel of the book. The edition I have (pictured) has that lovely matt velvet finish that publishers are using to lure in those of us who are swayed by tactile as well as visual qualities. Heaven help my credit card bill if they find a way to add aromas like ‘salt-beach’ or ‘fresh-baked bread’ to the normal new-book smell.
Having begun Past the Shallows, I didn’t take long to finish it. Even considering my compulsive concurrent reading, I couldn’t leave the fate of its two young protagonists hanging in the air.
The novel is about two young brothers, Miles and Harry, who live in a small community on Tasmania’s coast with their abusive, often drunk father. Scraping a living collecting abalone, often in illegal waters, their father makes the young teenage Miles work on his boat, while Harry escapes only because of intractable sea-sickness. The only relative they truly like and trust, their older brother, Joe, is about to leave for fairer climes in a boat he’s built himself. Harry’s wide-eyed innocence and fear, along with Miles’ protective instincts towards his little brother and attempts at placating his father, create a tension that sweeps the novel forward.
A vague mystery surrounds their mother’s death in a car accident a few years earlier and their father’s animosity towards Harry. An aunt takes only a distant interest. A loved grandfather has died, leaving them stranded. What will they do without Joe around? Who can they run to, once he’s gone?
The prose of this novel is deceptively simple, written alternately from Harry’s and Miles’ point of view. Perhaps in this case Castiglione‘s definition of sprezzatura is apt:
… to practice … so as to conceal all art and make whatever is done or said appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it.
The writing does indeed appear effortless, but I’m sure it was anything but a long, emotionally exhausting process. But as we follow Harry through the bush to make friends with a secluded neighbour’s dog, or Miles as he climbs shivering aboard his father’s boat in the pre-dawn hours, we never doubt the authenticity of their voices. We see through their eyes, fear as they fear, and wonder along with them how they can best survive their father’s whims and tempers.
This novel has stayed with me. I think it will stay with me for a long time. Favel Parrett’s second book, When The Night Comes, has just been announced in the long list of the Miles Franklin Award. Having read Past the Shallows, I don’t doubt it’s deserved. I’ll read her second one, eventually. When this one stops haunting me.
Links: Favel Parrett’s website
I’ll be reviewing Lost and Found by Brooke Davis and The Burial by Courtney Collins in coming weeks.
Aussie Writers Challenge
Australian Women Writers Challenge