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Posted on 16 Sep 2014 in Fiction |

JESSIE COLE Deeper Water. Reviewed by Lou Heinrich

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deeperwaterAn evocative depiction of sexual awakening, womanhood, and our relationship to the land.

Mema, a young woman, lives in an old hippie settlement, a remote property surrounded by a lush environment of camphor trees, verdant hills and a creek ‘that stretched out across the land like a giant serpent’. She, her sister Sophie, and their mother, have been abandoned by the men in their lives; all of Mema’s brothers, and their separate fathers. Typically, men fly in and disrupt while the women remain constant throughout the seasons. It’s a convincing family pattern; even Sophie’s husband has flown the coop, leaving the women to the tending of the children, the animals and the land.

Mema’s days are marked by her environment; she rises with the sun, and wanders among the ‘cow paddocks gone bushy, forest trees taking back the rolling hills’. Sometimes her friend Anja visits from the next hill, and they run through long grass just for the sake of it, exploring like children in their natural playground.

There’s a simplicity to the protagonist and narrator, Mema, who accepts things as they are – the world presented to her by her mother, a ceramicist who has a pottery shed and sells cups and bowls at a market every month and who is quiet yet overbearing, a disapproving presence whose opinion shadows Mema and her actions. When we meet Mema, she is like one of her mother’s mugs: moulded; shaped; kept in the shed. And thanks to her mother, she is innocent of many things: of the world beyond her paddocks, of men, of sex.

Until the stranger arrives.

During heavy rains, his car travels across a bridge near Mema’s house. She sees him get washed away by the overflowing river, and hurries to rescue him (in a satisfying reversal of gender roles). She uses a branch for him to cling on to while his car, laptop and phone sink to the bottom of the water.

He is a visitant from another world. Bemoaning the loss of his laptop and his mobile phone, he is lost and can’t escape for several days until the water goes down and Mema’s mother can give him a lift back into town. His lifestyle is put into perspective from Mema’s naïve point of view:

I was thinking about how panicked Hamish had been on that first afternoon when he realised he’d lost his laptop. I knew he must have been in shock from being trapped in the car like that, but … he looked like his whole world had washed down the drain. As though the computer was everything he had.

The Luddite existence of Mema, Sophie and their mother (in a house without a television or a computer) challenges the reader’s lifestyle, and indeed the modern way of living: constantly connected to our smartphones, we are oblivious to the opportunities, wonder and rhythm of the land. In contrast, Mema has a deep relationship with a fertile natural world, and its processes are an essential theme of the novel. Water and fire cause destruction and creation. Animals die and animals are born. Up at dawn, Mema achieves much before Hamish even awakes.

Mema has a club foot, yet moves comfortably when travelling the hills:

Maybe it was because I’d been walking this land for so long, but I always felt it accommodated me. That there was a way to walk through it without being off balance, that the land somehow came to my aid – shored up all my weak points. In town I became clumsy, as though all the straight lines and pavements tripped me up. The world became even, no undulations, and I became off centre.

Cole uses metaphors from the natural world like ‘raging river’ to describe Mema’s feelings, and when her sister notices her attraction to Hamish, she is described as a flower in bloom.

Mema’s story is ultimately one of discovery. The animal magnetism between her and Hamish builds throughout the book:

Watching him, something in my belly dropped. He had a stillness about him most of the time, so when he broke into motion it seemed like a revelation. I wanted to look away but I couldn’t. Men had never been of much interest to me.

Cole is expert in describing the bewildering, contradictory sensations of attraction:

Part of me wanted to stay there near him but part of me wanted to run. It was an uncomfortable feeling. I wasn’t used to it.

And her evocation of the awkwardness of a newfound sexuality is perceptive:

I liked the feeling of the wind in my hair, and if I hadn’t been squashed in alongside Hamish I would have felt utterly free. His arm against mine, moist and hot, kept jolting me back to the thought of climbing astride his lap. I hadn’t known how much unwanted thoughts could make you a prisoner.

Mema’s sexual awakening is parallel to her womanly awakening – the acknowledgment of her own power and agency.

However, in many ways, the whole scenario feels too imagined, and the dialogue can sometimes be clunky and awkward. Also, it’s kind of an old story – the experienced, worldly man who is drawn to a young girl because she is ‘different to the others’. And the plot seems to meander without much purpose or force.

But any cliches or loose plotting are eclipsed by the energy of the novel. Mema’s desire builds through what feels like an almost subconscious repetition and obsession. The beauty of the author’s prose shines through sex scenes bursting with emotion – emotion not from the intimacy of connection but arising from the intensity and glory of sex itself.

A fierce momentum tugs the reader by the belt buckle, causing her to flip pages to see when the tension will be finally released. Cole’s talent lies in the depiction of the intangible feelings of a sexual awakening.

Jessie Cole Deeper Water HarperCollins 2014 PB 384pp $29.99

A stone cold bibliophile, Lou Heinrich is the Books Editor at @lip_mag. She writes about pop culture and women and drinks too much Earl Grey.

You can buy this book from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW here or you can buy it from Booktopia here.

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.