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Book DetailsISBN: 9781760876388
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Book Review: Below Deck by Sophie Hardcastle - Reviewed by CloggieA (23 Mar 2020)
4 stars “Each time I come up for breath, the hoop pines become more pronounced, their outlines sharper, their immensity more overwhelming, until I am standing in the shallows, gazing up at the towering trees. Wooded bodies stand one after another, like the mountainside is an amphitheatre for a green choir singing all kinds of unheard songs.”
Below Deck is the third novel by Australian author, Sophie Hardcastle. Olivia Winters is an economics graduate with excellent job prospects who would have preferred to study the arts. She’s intelligent, but at twenty-one, incredibly naïve, a little aimless and has recently buried the grumpy grandfather with whom she was living in Manly, a man who had never recovered from the loss of his wife. Oli’s parents, a dictatorial father and a socialite mother, are demanding but absent and unsupportive, and her boyfriend lacks empathy and generosity.
But when she meets Mac and then Maggie, her immediate connection to Maggie is augmented by a mutual love of art and the shared peculiarity of synaesthesia. Oli feels enveloped by love and care when she’s with Mac and Maggie, something sorely lacking in her parents’ guardianship. She clearly gets more guidance from these two virtual strangers on a sailing trip through the Coral Sea than she has had during her whole childhood.
If the first part of the story, sea garden, and third part, desert, have beautiful prose, warmth and quirky humour, joy and sadness, and if the final part, sea ice, describes healing and life affirmation, the second part, sea monsters, is likely to make many readers feel uncomfortable, with Oli’s poor choices quickly fostering a sense of dread at her possible fate, and her method of coping with her trauma (rationalising her rape into a choice she made) is unlikely to sit well with many. Parts of sea ice also feel a bit like an environmental lecture.
There will be times when Oli’s actions are so frustrating, the reader wants to grab and shake her. Is her weakness, her lack of self-respect, her easy devaluing of herself, explained by her mother’s example? It’s difficult to say, as the story is quite disjointed at times, with several vaguely-described years between the parts.
Many readers may find the explicit description of sexual assaults confronting, and Oli is not an easy character with whom to connect, even before she goes into denial of what is clearly PTSD. Mac and Maggie, Will and Oli’s London friends are more endearing. Oli’s synaesthesia does make for some evocative descriptions. An interesting and thought-provoking read that doesn’t quite reach its potential. This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by Allen & Unwin.
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