“Past the Shallows” by Favel Parrett (Review) 

{ my rating: ★★★ }

Past the Shallows was Favel Parrett’s debut novel of 2011. I discovered it in the depths of blog comments once I decided that I wanted to involve myself more into the discussion of literary awards like the Man Booker and the Bailey’s next year yet realized there is near silence about Australian literary awards across the online book community. Although Parrett’s debut didn’t win awards, my current obsession with the atmosphere of Tasmania thanks to “The Kettering Incident” and the praise her short novel garnered from self-proclaimed picky readers made it one of the fastest times I’ve ever added a book to my virtual shopping cart. I devoured it in four days, but it left me colder than “The Kettering Incident’s” cliffhanger in a good and bad way.

Family dramas have been a staple of art across paintings, novels, and films, and it’s easy to pinpoint why. Some of the most delicious dramas a la Shakespeare’s Hamlet may be on the overexaggerated side, yet they mimic the turbulent emotions and scenes that everyone can relate to in one way or another. 

Harry’s relationship with his brothers, Joe and Miles, is a familiar scenario placed in a context not everyone can relate to being that their father is an abusive, bitter drunkard, but scenes with the brothers protecting each other or bickering about responsibilities is easy to wrap around. They are young in fact, younger than expected considering how dark this slim novel gets, but they are mature enough to know that clinging together and working together will be the means of their escape from their father. And so their relationship is kind of like a three cord rope, a tie that can never be severed completely, but it can be bothered. 

Tasmanian culture seems to be tied closely with nature based on the world of the novel. The night their father attacks and injures Joe as the eldest tries to protect Miles and Harry from blows is what changes the boys’ future altogether. Just like Tasmanian forests loom in the pitch black of deep night, so do family secrets stay close to the house, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t noticed. The little community the boys live in knows about the abuse to some extent just like they could tell you how creepy the forests look from their experience of staring into them, and their knowledge must have deepened further once Joe suddenly moved out. Yet no one does anything because in reality that is what happens more often than not.

But not to fear, for in the case of Harry and getting back at the father who never loved him (there are two important reasons why, and those reasons are dead by the way), Tasmania’s storm had something to say while Miles and Harry and their father’s fishing crew went out to sea to catch abalones from a big fishing corporation that lost their loot. For the sake of avoiding full spoilers, I’ll just say it had some overdue avenging to do. 

So what was it that left me feeling cold if the family dynamics, Tasmanian culture, and symbolism were all so dandy? It most certainly was not atmosphere, of which Parrett’s every page drips with. You can taste the sea, feel a blow to the face, and see the romantic vignettes of two trapped lovers finding freedom in each other when the scenes come due. The mental illness suggestions also come across as well researched when it comes to Harry, and Miles’ reactions to being responsible for Harry feel like things an older brother would do or complain about when faced with caring for a younger sibling that isn’t stable mentally. Let me put on record that I do not mind a bittersweet revenge when it’s handled so tragically beautiful as well.

What left me cold was the distance between me and the story. Each chapter read so lovely, dynamic with flourished prose and studded with delicate forethought about what each character said or did, but those and more did not fix the fact that each chapter also felt half finished. That made Tasmania and all its characters feel like a far away planet, both in distance and time. 

So the irony is that I felt a spark of unique Australian life and art in the pages of Past the Shallows, but I did not feel the pain of the characters or their triumphs half as much as I should have. The novel started with a focus on the boys, but once it took a turn into trying to convey more than their terrible home life and fraught spirits, it lost the charm that made it intimate, because as much as the twist at the end reveals how constraining Tasmanian culture is, it didn’t burrow deep into my heart. 

What I remember is Harry’s determination to find a shark tooth in all the wrong places. What I remember is Miles realizing Joe wouldn’t ever be coming back to save him and Harry. And I remember the sea. The swelling, rolling, angry sea. 

Favel Parrett has an undeniable talent for constraining her ideas into bite-sized chapters that highlight the most import messages she wants to convey, be they about the nature of family or the uncontrollable spirit of Tasmania, but whether she intended to make Past the Shallows feel moons away is up for discussion. Nonetheless, I set it down wishing for more than what I got. 

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