Favel Parrett’s debut novel was longlisted for the Miles Franklin earlier this year, but I’d been meaning to read it well before that. She was in Canberra several months ago, and my bosses raved about how lovely she was. Then a customer raved about the book a few weeks ago, so I finally picked it up to have a look. Just like Rohan Wilson, Parrett’s written an excellent first novel about Tasmania.
The death of their mother has left a hole in the lives of Harry, Miles and Joe, three brothers living on the remote south coast of Tasmania. Though Joe has escaped their abusive father, Miles and Harry remain at home—Miles is often pulled out of school to work on the family fishing boat, and Harry spends time with their Aunt Jean. But it is a fragile existence, and anything could break it.
I don’t know if it’s because of the location, or because of something else, but the best world I can use to describe this novel is grey. Unfalteringly grey. It is not a complex story—indeed, it could be argued that many of these tropes have been used to death, particularly in Australian literary fiction (I’m thinking here of novels like The Mary Smokes Boys and films like Australian Rules)—but Parrett uses them with such deftness that it doesn’t matter at all.
The two main characters, Harry and Miles, are gorgeous. I just wanted to hug them and give them a warm house to sleep in. Harry, particularly, comes off as a naïve innocent, caught up in the dirty world of mortals and devils. His early cheer at finding a $20 note on the ground is followed by such wonderfully childish decisions, including the buying of something like ten showbags he can share with his brother and friend, Stuart. I mean, really. No one like that deserves to live in a world like the one Parrett draws. In some ways, it’s easy to forget that Miles is only 13. He is so responsible, so focused on protecting his younger brother from the monster that is their father, he has a maturity that belies his physical age.
It’s interesting that the ocean serves two functions here, echoing perhaps the wider Australian fascination with it. There’s no denying that the ocean is a recurring theme throughout a lot of Australian literature (Winton, obviously, but others, too), and Parrett taps into our uneasy relationship with it. Miles and Joe love surfing—for them, it’s an escape from their real lives. Joe is even planning on sailing to the South Pacific which, in hindsight, seems a little optimistic from the southern tip of Tasmania. But at the same time, Parrett shows us just how fickle the ocean can be, and reminds us that we have absolutely no control over it, not matter how much we might like to think otherwise. Miles seems particularly aware of this danger. Each time he goes out on the boat, something seems to go wrong. And Harry is not even allowed on the boat, because he gets seasick before they even leave the jetty.
The fact that we keep returning to the ocean gives a sense of inevitability to the denouement playing out of the boat. Each action has a certain reaction, and it seems that it can’t play out any other way. His dad forces Harry to drink half a bottle of alcohol. Miles defends his brother. Their dad hits Miles. Miles and Harry run away. Miles leaves Harry at a friend’s house, but Harry wants to go home, so he wanders back at night. Miles and his father almost hit Harry wandering on the road. Their dad is so angry, he takes them out on the boat during a huge storm.
The climactic scene, on the boat in the storm, is both page-turning and harrowing. The ocean has been a symbol of the inner turmoil of the this family for the entire novel, and now, with a huge storm from the south approaching, this turmoil spills over into the real world. And as their father basically attacks the two sons in his anger, Harry takes more and more of the brunt, forcing Miles to protect his younger brother. And, unsurprisingly, the two end up in the water, waiting to die.
In the end, Miles is unable to save his younger brother, despite the slight glimmer of hope Parrett teases us with. When Miles finds out that Harry is dead, I definitely teared up a bit. Which was awkward, because I was reading it at work, in front of the general public. But my goodness, it’s intense. Miles’ previous struggle to get Harry out of the water is intense enough, but for it all to have then been in vein was too much for me. It takes a lot for a book to move me emotionally, but by God, Past the Shallows did.
The only weak link in the novel is George, and even that’s not weak, so much as slightly superfluous. Harry needs a place to escape, and he finds it in a gentle, but terrifying looking man, who has a cute puppy—the polar opposite of his own father. Yes, he’s Harry’s Hagrid. Which is fine, but it’s an unnecessary distraction in an otherwise tightly controlled, small-scale, almost claustrophobic, family drama. The idea of a young child finding solace and company in a physically deformed, socially isolated outcast is nothing new, and could probably quite merrily have been thrown out to give us some more family time.
Past the Shallows ends on a note of hope and redemption. Miles and Joe are going to leave their father, assumedly never to see him again. But the most innocent of all, Harry, is dead. I wonder, then, if that’s the point. That Harry couldn’t survive in a world like that. That situations like this crush even the most innocent, most beautiful people imaginable. Miles and Joe escape, but they have been blooded in the ways of the real world. It is not a pretty thought, but then, this is not a pretty tale. Real, raw, shocking—yes. Pretty—no.