I somehow missed Anna Spargo-Ryan’s 2016 debut novel, The Paper House. I had requested it and felt mildly insulted when it didn’t arrive but – despite the praise it received – my apathy paired with my to-be-read (TBR) pile was (and still is) such that I really don’t get to read anything other than the books I receive for review.
Very happily however, I received her second novel, The Gulf, and was very impressed by the Aussie author. In fact I was enchanted by this book, which offers readers a satisfying blend of bleak hopelessness gently mixed with a sense of whimsy or wistfulness.
by Anna Spargo-Ryan
Published by Picador Australia
on May 30th 2017
Genres: Literary Fiction
Skye’s sixteen, and her mum’s got yet another new boyfriend. Trouble is, Jason’s bad news. Really bad. Now Mum’s quit her job and they’re all moving north to Port Flinders, population nobody.
She’d do anything to keep her ten-year-old brother safe. Things she can’t even say out loud. And when Jason gets violent, Skye knows she has to take control. She’s got to get Ben out and their mum’s useless as. The train home to Adelaide leaves first thing each morning and they both need to be on it. Everything else can wait.
I follow Spargo-Ryan on social media and know she writes openly about mental illness and often confronts life with no-holds barred brutal honesty… something reflected in this heart-wrenching and heart-warming book.
I was captivated from the opening sentence… bewitched by our delightful narrator Skye and her young brother Ben.
Spargo-Ryan isn’t fluffily descriptive (something I appreciate) but placed me firmly there… into their world, and she very cleverly used Skye’s often-impassive observations as a way of ‘showing’ we readers her world.
The book’s written in first person from Skye’s point of view and her outlook is dark. I was initially overcome with a sense of nostalgia. Skye’s life isn’t much but it’s almost idyllic in a bleak sort of way.
It was hard not to reflect on my own childhood and though I had my share of teenage angst, I realise how fortunate I was to view the world around me as a predominantly good place. Skye however, sees the darkness. She’s constantly watching for the danger. Waiting for the other shoe to drop. And her brother Ben, at 10, is possibly even more dire in terms of his ‘take’ on life and obsession with death.
Things change – of course – once Jason comes into their lives and turns them upside down.
The book is essentially a snapshot into Skye and Ben’s life – capturing a short but pivotal point in time. I couldn’t help but wonder if Jason was the catalyst for a much-needed change or an interruption they could have done without.
The relationship between Skye and Ben is beautiful and I pondered on the complete selflessness and unconditional love that is so often seen between parents and children – or this case – siblings.
We were a team, Ben and me. I felt it then more acutely than I had ever felt anything. p 68
And there are many reminders of the fact Skye’s forced into playing a role for which she’s not quite ready.
I took her hand and tried to think of a time we had been together this way, with our selves right open. Hadn’t ever practised the words to say to her. I sat there with my mouth half-open, waiting for the right things to come out. p 69
The characters in particular are complex and I liked that Spargo-Ryan wasn’t tempted to have every possible terrible fate or circumstance befall Skye and Ben. There are silver linings, through Ben’s friends in Adelaide and Raf and his mother in Port Flinders and Skye’s work colleague. Even the brief scenes involving Raff’s ‘uncle’ offer a sense that there is good in the world. After all.
And ultimately Spargo-Ryan offers Skye’s mother a chance at redemption, so there’s some grey mixed in with her obvious irresponsible parenting and selfish ways.
The book centres very much around relationships, focusing on broken families (and people, to an extent) and the impact they have on those involved. Because of that there’s also an underlying theme about belonging.
I miss getting up in the morning and knowing where I fit in. p 175
I enjoyed Skye’s anecdotes in relation to the time she (once) spent with her father and grandfather… and her expectations that familial ties remain intact. She’s disenfranchised but clinging to hope nonetheless.
This book is beautifully written. Spargo-Ryan certainly has a way with words. Her writing is poignant, confronting and addictive. Her narrative – though Skye’s eyes – is achingly sad, but there’s almost a sense of wistfulness at times, amidst the bleak hopelessness.
The Gulf by Anna Spargo-Ryan was published in Australia by Pan Macmillan and is now available.
I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes.