Love, loss and the end of the world: three Australian debut novels seduce and stumble

Love, loss and the end of the world: three Australian debut novels seduce and stumble

Tatiana Syrikova/Pexels, CC BY

Coming of age is familiar territory for first-time novelists – the journey from youth to adult maturity. First novels often draw on personal experience. For the reader, they can feel like a hybrid of memoir and fiction. In these three debut novels, growing up happens very differently for each protagonist, across diverse Australian settings.

The territory they inhabit variously hovers between the recognisable real world, in two coastal novels that include themes of parental closeness and estrangement, and the purely imaginary – in a dystopian debut where the protagonist grows up in a near-future where it never stops raining.

Review: Thirst for Salt – Madelaine Lucas (Allen & Unwin); The Comforting Weight of Water – Roanna McLelland (Wakefield Press); My Father the Whale (HarperCollins)

In Thirst for Salt, Madelaine Lucas builds an emotional world so real that we viscerally inhabit the mind and heart of her young narrator. Any of us who has ever known (or wanted to know) rare intimacy in all its sensuality and rawness will recognise it in these pages.

The Australian cover of Thirst for Salt features a young woman, face partially obscured, on a windswept beach. The cliché undersells the literary strengths of Lucas’s novel; her psychological story is so much richer than the cover – and the bare plot – might suggest.

A yearning affair

A young woman forms a relationship with an older man, Jude, encountered on a beach holiday. She is 24, he 42. The symmetry portends hope, despite their difference in age.

The narrator, never named, is breaking from an unusual closeness with the single mother who raised her. She wants to “establish a life outside her purview, a life that was mine alone”. The passionate affair with Jude forms the core of the novel, but neither love story nor coming-of-age are quite adequate to capture the deep and affecting emotional complexities explored in this novel: from the heartbreak of parental separation and estrangement to the losses of what might have been.

The young woman feels untethered. She sees it in the “raised-by-wolves look […] in certain pictures from the years after my mother left my father”. She shares with her mother “a marrowed loneliness, passed down womb to womb”. Love is a central theme, communicated with a finely attuned sensibility that never descends into trope.

The narrator yearns, too, for her absent father, whom she sees sporadically due to her transient upbringing. She recalls the occasion of playing a game of chess with him:

I tried to mirror him, moving my pawns forward one square at a time until he cornered my king in five moves. Checkmate. It happened so quickly, the pieces swept away, the board closed up and slipped back into my father’s coat, and then he was gone.

The quest for an absent father figure looms, but never overtakes, in the burgeoning affair with Jude.

This legacy of parental neglect – not materially, not even so much the lack of love, more a carelessness towards a growing child’s being – gives rise to an uncertain persona, a woman who mistrusts the gifts of life and love. She feels her relative youth as a flaw (“trying to appear seasoned, brave, lying in his bed with the sheets tucked up under my arms”) and struggles to find equality with a man so much older, more experienced, more worldly-wise.

The asymmetries of the relationship become more pronounced. “Jude said that we should be like a gift to each other, but I longed to be essential.” There is something of the Heathcliff in Jude, or perhaps Jude the Obscure; the literary reference is not lost. He is handsome – and inscrutable.

The reader can’t help asking why an intelligent, qualified young woman is living a life of reclusion with an older loner of a man in a weather-ravaged house on a remote (windswept) coast. The answer: refuge, care, comfort, phenomenal sex (at first) and an illusion of trustfulness, stability and dependency, the “forever” she seeks. But ultimately Jude needs “not to feel bound to anyone – love with a loose leash”. Like a silk-spun cocoon, we know their affair must break (and this is not a spoiler – we know from the opening pages).

King, an affectionate, hound-like mutt of a dog enters their life. He, like the narrator, was once abandoned, now finding new love and care. His condition deteriorates as does the progression of love. “We wanted to believe, my mother and I, that love could restore what was beyond repair, and if not, at least let us walk around in the wreckage.” But love cannot cure all, she discovers.

Madelaine Lucas builds an emotional world so real that we viscerally inhabit her narrator. Kylie Coutts

Some novels invite you right in, to settle down in that warm house while storms rage outside. The protagonist’s naïve voice is interwoven with the mature insights of a much-older narrator, a decade on, reminiscing on this significant episode in her life. The two voices work together in delicate harmony, shifting effortlessly between description, action, sensory experience and reflection. The prose is textured and multilayered, as pure and melancholic as the sea in all its changing moods, which Lucas so beautifully captures.

“There is no end to grief,” the mother tells her daughter, “because there is no end to love”.

Thirst for Salt treads familiar territory, yet is told with such acuity as to render it fresh. Who is not drawn in by the seductiveness of first love: love like no one has ever experienced? Who of us hasn’t longed for that to endure and questioned why it didn’t or couldn’t?

These and other universal questions – the need for belonging, connection and stability, as well as the coming-of-age quest for identity, adventure and challenge – form the meditative core of Thirst for Salt. And they absorb the reader through the novel’s pages.

For all its melancholy, Lucas still leaves us with hope: “What continues to surprise me,” the narrator shares, “and what I still don’t understand, is not the reasons that love ends but the way that it endures.”

Read more: Damsels in distress: two new Australian novels fail to achieve their literary ambitions

Adolesence and the death of humanity

Coming of age is depicted in a starkly contrasting environment in The Comforting Weight of Water. The narrative chronicles the daily routines of an adolescent in a dystopian, near-future world where it never stops raining – except for one brief period of sunlight each day.

The adolescent narrator lives with the ageing Gammy, who can remember “shops and people walking on the moon, being part of the land”. The adolescent – the only one remaining in the village (“they killed the rest like you”) wears a green cloak and a bell. She is responsible for providing food for the rest of the villagers: lizards, eels, frogs, cockroaches, crabs. At the same time, she is greatly feared by them. The animals of the swamp – a cod fish, a turtle – are her only companions.

This disturbing scenario is presented as an inevitability for anyone complacent about the threats to our environment. McLelland depicts a terrifying world exacting revenge on humanity for its excesses. The elements are personified. The Wet – ceaseless rain. “Before the Wet was the dry, scorched brown earth.” The River – the villagers angered the River, who “just takes what is hers […] not a bitch, just in charge”.

Then there is the Unbidden, symbolised by threatening figures with their “empty eyes” and “black empty shells”, breakaways from the group of shrouded villagers. Gammy recounts what the Unbidden did: “they chucked the parents into the river, bound with ropes.”

Gammy is old enough to recall the events of the past. “We could make machines that circled the stars, but we couldn’t stop the Wet.” (“What’s a star, Gammy?” asks the narrator.) When the waters came,

great lines of people [snaked] their way to higher ground […] leaving behind crumbling cities and poisoned waters and death.

As if this isn’t bleak enough, there is no human salvation. In one chapter, the adolescent finds a position to spy on them. The villagers are pointlessly rebuilding their wooden huts in the incessant rain:

their skin peeling off in sheets, revealing red, mottled and raw flash underneath. Some of them even have a patchwork of green and black swelling up from their ankles. Rotting as they stand there.

They are “Zombie villagers, moving husks with nothing left inside. The wet hollowed them out”. They toil wordlessly, in their wooden-slatted shoes, or lie “in their own shit and piss”. A man falls into the sludge, submerges, his disappearance noted but ignored. This is humanity at its most degraded.

The villagers lack any recognisable form of empathy. The only communication is between the adolescent and Gammy. Even then, the dialogue is mocking, often harsh. Only in brief moments does Gammy acknowledge any form of sympathy or regret: “I’m sorry your future was taken away from you, kid.”

One day, there is no patch of sunlight. Gammy and the adolescent must leave: they set out, plodding and wading through the River, come across submerged villages, and surprisingly, find one that is flourishing (“The forest feels calm, not cowed”). They are pursued by a threatening figure (Gammy claims it was the Unbidden) but manage to elude the pursuer.

There are brief, energised moments and barely registerable scene changes, but for the most part, nothing much else happens in the narrative – which is the point. This is the void. The nothingness hereafter. A sobering allegory for our times.

The Comforting Weight of Water is not an easy read, but it’s searing in its portrayal of utter environmental annihilation and the death of humanity and humaneness. McLelland writes with angry passion – the depressed voice of a generation whose future has been stolen. As Gammy bemoans:

all the plans you have, the way you thought you would live, suddenly wrenched away from you. Ideas for the future you didn’t even realise you relied on, washed away.

McLelland draws the reader back into the primeval swamp and seems to be warning: if you don’t watch out, you’ll be abandoned there.

Read more: Sophie Cunningham's pandemic novel admits literature can't save us – but treasures it for trying

Idealised, imperfect – and abandoning

My Father the Whale is an absorbing, if uneven, tale of growing up with the transience of life on the road and the shock of paternal abandonment.

It is 1984 and nine-year-old Ruby roams the country in a Kombi with father Mitch, performing acrobatic circus tricks with him for a living. Her mother is long dead, silenced out of the conversation. Ruby yearns for the stability of a permanent home – and when a vehicle breakdown delays them in a regional town, Ruby has the chance to attend the local school and befriends the kind Fiona Stanley.

Divisions with her father begin, heightened when Ruby is left to fend for herself in the midst of a threatening bushfire. Mitch subsequently leaves his daughter in the care of the Stanleys, chasing an opportunity in Japan and only re-entering Ruby’s life 16 years later.

Mitch is a larrikin, hippy father, not particularly likable or dependable, but not wholly bad either. He is idealised by his daughter, though she is also cognisant of his shortcomings. Her longing for approval – and for him to even notice her – ring true enough, but his abandonment of her is somewhat implausible given the reasonably functional and close relationship they have shared. (Though there is a background explanation to come.) The Stanley family’s adoption of Ruby without intervention from social workers and the state also stretches belief, to me. Pauline and Max feel a little too decently good to be true – though such families do exist.

Now an adult, Ruby works for the whale-watching company in town and develops her skills as an artist. She is obsessed by whales, as if to underline the story’s recurrent motif and the novel’s title.

As a child she marvelled at the mother whales’ loyalty to her calves and was curious about the role of the father whale: “The males were the singers, the battle-scarred bodyguards who taught the calf what it needed to avoid danger and survive.” Her yearning is palpable: “standing there on the bow watching the whales it was as if her wishing had brought them to her.”

The narrator of My Father the Whale is ‘obsessed by whales, as if to underline the story’s recurrent motif’. Phillip Flores/Unsplash, CC BY

And, as if her wish did come true, Ruby’s father suddenly reappears, tagging along Carlos, the three-year-old son of his current partner, Maeve. The ironic parallels – and Ruby’s envy of – the relationships around her are especially tough for her to bear. Mitch is attached to the unappealing young Carlos, who now dominates his time and care, while Maeve is preoccupied by bigger and greater things.

Ruby embarks on a mission to solve the unanswered questions of her past. The implausibility rolls on through the second part of the novel.

I couldn’t help but think of other books on the same theme of parental abandonment, which felt like they acutely, authentically captured the voice of the abandoned child as narrator: Cath Moore’s YA novel, Metal Fish Falling Snow and Shannon Burns’ memoir, Childhood. By comparison, the abandoned child’s voice in this novel didn’t feel as real. Nor did I find plausible the events of the narrative, given we know Ruby is curious about her maternal family.

For instance, why didn’t she ask more questions, try to find out more about her mother, contact her maternal grandparents? At least wonder about them, in her thoughts? Fourteen years without physically seeing the father she had been so close to seems unrealistic, even for the times.

When Ruby does finally meet with him again, it is as if he had only disappeared yesterday. I expected a more aggrieved reaction: more shock, anger and hurt. She is irritated at Carlos for defacing her painting, but later worries she overreacted. The word “anger” towards her father arises in her thoughts, but we don’t see this in her actions, nor is there any moody silence in the dialogue between them.

Perhaps it is because their relationship remains essentially unchanged: Mitch has always done what he wanted, and Ruby has always passively accepted that. “No point in dwelling on these things, you’ve got to move on” Mitch says, inadequately explaining his long abandonment. Ruby hits back sharply with a response that rings more truly: “We were always moving on.”

Other minor characters are half-baked. Ruby’s already-married romantic attachment is barely introduced – and then dispensed with conveniently, in a matter of pages. Minor characters like this might be better invoked in brief reminiscence, or left out altogether.

Perry writes with fluency and ease, but I wanted her to trust the reader more, to let the dialogue speak for itself – without so many explainer tags.

By the end of the novel, some questions are answered. But there’s a disappointing feeling Ruby hasn’t really grown up, as she herself observes: “a strange feeling of something ending rather than beginning”.

Given her tough upbringing and Mitch’s flaws, such a lack of resolution is not entirely unexpected, but I found it a little unsatisfying. I expected more agency and decisiveness from Ruby – but perhaps I am too much a sucker for the restoration of order and wrongs being put to right.

It is really hard to write a novel. There is no fail-safe recipe. These authors are to be commended on reaching the finish line, exploring universal themes that resonate with readers: love, loss, parental failings and the imperfections of our grown-up selves. Fiction, to quote Julia Prendergast, is an “apt vessel for capturing the haunting incompleteness of human experience”. These three novels, each in their own ways, effectively tackle that incompleteness.

Jane Turner Goldsmith does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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