ANNA SPARGO-RYAN The Gulf. Reviewed by Kylie Mason
The author of The Paper House returns with The Gulf, a moving tale of growing up before your time.
‘Can’t believe I met him in Big W. I mean, of all places. Just so romantic to bump into each other in the line. He let me go ahead of him, you know. Real gentleman … He runs his own business. How good is that? In Port Flinders.’
Skye’s mum, Linda, has met a new man. Jason is bald and tattooed and not bad looking, and his business, according to Linda, is too complicated to understand. After he moves in, all Skye sees him do is make phone calls and count five-dollar notes into plastic bags, so she isn’t too sure about that. But she can’t stop her mother falling under Jason’s spell, and she knows there’s no point in trying; she has school and her little brother, Ben, to worry about, so she keeps out of the happy couple’s way and gets on with things.
Home life isn’t great after Jason moves in but at least Skye and Ben have their own rooms and friends among their neighbours in the apartment block. They can escape to the park down the road, or to the corner shop, or to get some chips from the takeaway. Then the owner puts their flat up for sale and the new owner, not an investor as they’d hoped, evicts them. Linda takes Jason up on his offer to move in with him – in his house in Port Flinders, hours away from Adelaide and everything Skye and Ben know:
Jason’s house was a fair way out of town, over a bridge and across the road from a bit of flat land that someone might have wanted to make into a park, once. Now it was mostly green and yellow spinifex. We stood in the driveway with our bags in our hands. The house was a cream brick one with a flat tin roof and a satellite dish sticking out like an ear. He had a corrugated fence with a few paint smears, and over it we could see a Hills hoist with faded towels dancing. At the back, a gum tree stretched into the huge sky.
Jason’s house has three bedrooms, but he needs one for his business, so Skye and Ben share a room. In the back yard, chained to the clothesline, is a neglected dog with an injured foot. It’s harder to escape the house in Port Flinders, but Skye and Ben do their best. For Skye, school helps a bit, but Ben is a target for bullies and can’t make friends. They both hear rumours about how Jason makes his money, rumours that, worryingly, mention their mother, who has fallen deeper into Jason’s world since their arrival. Ben struggles to understand the rumours but Skye has a better idea of what they mean, which becomes clearer when she begins to hang out with a group of her classmates, thanks to the welcoming efforts of local football star, Raf:
‘I’ve never been to a party like this,’ I said, and wished I hadn’t. Raf squeezed my hand.
‘Just say “fucking lit” a lot and get drunk with me.’ He threw his hands in the air. Shouted at a guy across the room. Cracked the lid off his beer on the edge of the kitchen bench. He led me out through sliding doors to a patio with a spa built right into it like it was part of the house. Yardy had his arm around El and Renée, Hamish smoked across from them with his legs hanging over the edge. Al, at the barbecue, was burning sausages and throwing them at some girls on the lawn.
As their home life deteriorates and Linda continues to choose her relationship with Jason over her responsibilities to her children, Skye realises she has to do something to save her brother and herself. But while she’s been forced to act like a grown-up for years now, she’s still only 16, so what can she really do that will make a difference?
Anna Spargo-Ryan doesn’t shy away from writing about difficult and often traumatic situations, and she does so with skill, honesty and tenderness. Her previous novel, The Paper House, was a touching study of the loss of a baby and the effect of such a loss on an individual’s mental health. Similarly, The Gulf looks at the effects of neglect and abuse on children, how they cope and who they turn to for help when the person who is supposed to look after them fails in that duty. Skye is a fantastic character, by turns strong and vulnerable, and unfailingly determined to make a better life for her brother. Spargo-Ryan has found a wonderful balance between what Skye knows she is telling the reader and what she lets slip through in her responses to the situations she finds herself in – she is just as often an uncertain teenager as she is a responsible adult making difficult decisions. Skye’s relationship with Raf is particularly well depicted, and by giving her the tentativeness of a girl who has been betrayed too often by people she trusts and allowing her to have normal teenage experiences outside of the distress of her home life, the author deepens her characterisation.
There is humour, too, throughout the novel, moments of light-heartedness and fun that both offer a reprieve from the awfulness and underline it. The glimpses of hope in Skye’s and Ben’s times away from home, when their worry is temporarily dampened and they let themselves have fun, are like rays of sunshine. As are Raf and his mother, Claud, the two people in Port Flinders who see what Skye and Ben are going through, and who try to help, as far as they can, by offering the kids support and someone to talk to. There is a delicate balance between this hope outside the home and the hopelessness within it, which Spargo-Ryan handles deftly.
The Gulf is a difficult and confronting story sensitively and bravely told. As with her previous book, Spargo-Ryan’s gift for creating sympathetic characters and her shrewd eye for the world around us suggests an Australian literary talent just beginning to come into its own.
Anna Spargo-Ryan The Gulf Picador 304pp $29.99
Kylie Mason is a freelance book editor based in Sydney.
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