Liticism’s Miles Franklin Countdown: Favel Parrett’s Past The Shallows
*Spoiler alert: this is not intended as a straight review and I do refer to key plot points in this analysis.
It’s strange the way works read in succession can speak to each other, the way the mind finds connections in works never written to be compared. In Tony Birch’s Blood the protagonists see a matinee screening of To Kill a Mockingbird. The children admire Jem and Scout, and the allusion is to two children placed in a dangerous situation. How strange it was, then, in Favel Parrett’s novel to see not only young protagonists again in danger, but shades of Boo Radley in the character George Fuller:
This was George Fuller’s place. Kids at school were scared of George Fuller. Harry had only ever seen him once, standing on the side of the road, but he didn’t ever want to see him again. His face was all squashed in and he looked like a monster. Stuart said that he lured people to his shack and ate them. Other kids said worse things. They said that George had killed his parents, burnt them alive, while they were sleeping in their beds, and that he was crazy. Harry never came this way. And if he had to, he was always careful to stick close to the road instead of taking the short cut.
In a tragic reworking of Harper Lee’s classic story, however, George isn’t there to save his young friend, and the sweetly harmless mockingbird character is indeed the one destroyed.
Past The Shallows is a dark and moody novel. Set at the ends of the earth, in remote southern coastal Tasmania, Parrett’s bleak and restrained debut mirrors in its narrative and tone the tumultuous rhythms of the ocean. The stillness of much of the work is punctuated with unexpectedly violent and horrifying episodes, like the crashing of a violent wave when, just moments before, the horizon had been calm and smooth.
Early in the novel there is a shark attack. It is disorienting and unexpected – warning of the dangerousness of the environment in which they exist. They overcome the shark, but rather than let the animal go, Jeff, a fisherman working with their father, not only kills the shark but guts it, and when finding that the animal is pregnant, also slays its pups:
She lay on her side, her blue skin already turning grey, and Miles felt sick as he watched Jeff slice through her white underbelly with ease. Her stomach and insides slide through blood onto the deck. She was pregnant. Jeff hacked into the full womb and three pups spilled out; two dead and half eaten, the other trying to swim in its mother’s blood against the hard surface of the deck, tiny gills stretched opening, black eyes searching. Jeff bent over and stabbed it through the head, grinning as its body came up on the long knife still fighting. He chucked it at Miles and laughed as he wiped blood off his face.
This instance foreshadows a theme that repeats itself in the novel – that the hatred and violence of people is far worse than anything the ocean could do.
Joe, Miles and Harry are three brothers who lost their mother in a car accident years earlier, the circumstances of which are still mysterious. They grow up with their alcoholic father, an abalone fisherman, who displays no paternal affection, making his oldest boys skip school to work with him on the boat.
Though the novel narrates from the perspectives of both Miles and Harry, it is Harry who Parrett lingers over – affectionately drawing his childish preoccupations with Peanut Butter toast sandwiches, the delayed pleasures of showbag lollies, and the irresistible lure of a puppy that leads to befriending the frighteningly scarred George. ‘Harry,’ Miles notes, ‘had a way about him. A way that made you promise to take care of him.’ This is as true for Miles as it is for the reader. Harry is a little boy utterly lacking in any sort of parental love, and we ache for him.
‘Dad doesn’t like me very much,’ Harry tells George one day matter-of-factly. But the cruelty and violence to which his father descends make that statement almost laughably inadequate. In one of the most horribly affecting moments in the work, their father sits watching as his friend forcibly pours spirits down Harry’s throat:
Jeff rammed the glass against Harry’s mouth and forced his jaw open. The liquid poured in and Harry gasped and choked. Beam spilled down his chin. Miles had tasted Beam before. It must be burning Harry, his throat and his mouth, burning his eyes. And Jeff was still pouring, making Harry swallow by jerking his head around with his wrist and forearm.
We learn that the father broke the arm of his eldest boy, Joe, and that he left his two youngest boys alone and bleeding at the scene of the car crash that killed his wife. The violence escalates to uncomfortable, and in some ways unbelievable proportions: He pushes Miles’s head underwater repeatedly for increasingly long stretches of time in order to teach him a lesson, and in his final, utterly horrifying act, pushes Harry – a little boy who has terrible seasickness and can’t swim – overboard.
The problem, I felt, is that the father’s hatred cannot be explained adequately – there is the suggestion that Joe and Harry are not his biological sons. But his behaviour toward his only real son isn’t consistent, he hates them all equally. Jeff and the boys’ father felt somewhat underdrawn, too evil to be believable.
In the early parts of the novel, there are several instances where Parrett shows us how the environment has been affected by its inhabitants, the ways in which events leave their mark upon a place — such as the woods surrounding George’s house: ‘When the forest was cleared it never looked right when it grew back. It was missing bits,’ or the tree, years after the fateful car accident that killed their mother, ‘It still had a scar, a line where the bark had never grown back. And it was amazing that it had survived at all. They had hit it so hard.’ But, far more powerful is Parrett’s exploration of the way a place can mark and change you too. The men at the cannery have the smells of the ocean seeped into their skin: ‘everyone who worked there smelled like that, too. It didn’t wash away. The fish oil soaked inside their skin and it stayed.’ The boy’s father and Jeff have been similarly marked by the ocean, they have spent so much time beneath the surface of the furious, frightening ocean, that it seems to have changed them too.
– Favel Parrett’s Past The Shallows is available through Hachette.