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Posted on 5 Mar 2020 in Fiction |

SOPHIE HARDCASTLE Below Deck. Reviewed by Ann Skea

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Sophie Hardcastle’s second novel explores the lure of the sea, and the cost of violence.

It starts below deck. Olivia (Oli) has been kidnapped. Well, not actually kidnapped but rescued late at night, in a drunken stupor, by Mac, an old man who now needs to deliver his yacht to another boatyard by 10 in the morning:

You, young lady, were blind. Couldn’t even tell me your name. Was I supposed to let you go home like that? No, Jane and I had to carry you to the boat.

Oli, on a night out at the Cruising Yacht Club in Sydney, had just quarrelled with her boyfriend, Adam. Her parents live in Singapore, and she is living with her grandfather in the Sydney suburb of Manly. After the initial shock of waking up at sea on a strange boat, the first thing she learns about Mac is that he is a joker:

‘Where am I?’ I repeat, louder this time.

‘You’re on the Tasman.’

At my feet, there are ropes coiled around metal stumps, and lines threading up a towering pole. The old man pulls on one of the ropes and the creases in the sail above me are smoothed out, like skin pulled tight around bone. I feel the boat pucker, then lift a little.

‘The what?’

‘The Tasman Sea,’ he says pointing at the endless expanse of ocean…

I feel like a hand is wrapped around my throat, squeezing. I might throw up. ‘I need to get off.’

‘You will. In a few days… when we get to New Zealand.’

But he doesn’t take her to New Zealand. Instead he moors the boat at the Newport Yacht Club, just up the coast from Sydney Harbour, buys her a milkshake and chips, then drives her home to Manly in his car.

Shortly after this, Oli’s grandfather dies suddenly and unexpectedly. Shocked and disorientated, alienated from her parents, who visit briefly for the funeral, not knowing what to do with herself and gloomily contemplating the offer of a post-graduate internship with a prestigious investment bank, which she doesn’t want to take, Oli remembers that Mac had offered to let her join him when he sails his yacht back from Newport to Sydney, and to introduce her to his partner, Maggie.

This first trip with Mac and Maggie is Oli’s introduction to sailing. ‘Sailing,’ Mac tells her:

‘… isn’t about control. It’s about listening, feeling, surrendering and adapting.’
Maggie chimes in. ‘It’s also about getting cold and wet while going nowhere fast.’

This is the start of Oli’s close friendship with Mac and, especially, with Maggie, who shares Oli’s way of experiencing the world through sound and colour. A later, longer trip with Mac and Maggie to Hamilton Island in the Coral Sea not only cements that friendship but awakens Oli to the beauty, the magic and the terrors of sailing.

Sophie Hardcastle clearly knows and loves sailing and the sea, and she writes realistically and poetically about Oli’s experiences. The first part of the book, ‘Sea Garden’, is often idyllic and ends with Oli underwater listening to whale song:

I hear whale song in swirls of violet and Prussian blue.

And in the same way that realising the blue of the sky is only an illusion marks both the death of innocence and the birth of imagination, listening to whale song is both an ending and a beginning. It’s the lifting of a veil.

Part two of the book, ‘Sea Monsters’, is very different. Oli is now four years older and an experienced sailor. She is in Noumea and has almost run out of money, so she takes a job with an all-male crew of four who are delivering a yacht from Noumea to Auckland in New Zealand. What happens on the voyage is a nightmare that will damage Oli’s relationship with the sea almost irreparably. Oli describes all that happens so vividly that we hear and see, in harrowing, emotional detail, how what begins with a terrible storm and an accidental breakage, ends in disaster, horror and near madness.

It is this which sets the scene for part three of the book, ‘Deserts’. Oli, again, is a few years older. She now lives in London where she works as an assistant to the curator of a small, successful, art gallery. She has a new man in her life and she is happy. Just as the first part of the book immerses the reader in Oli’s beautiful, sunny, ocean-filled world in Sydney, so this part of the book brings her more sophisticated, land-bound, London world of art to life. But she has abandoned the sea altogether and even the sight of it beneath the pier on a day-trip to Brighton causes her to panic:

Through the gaps I see the ocean. Washing back and forth. Sways of white foam. My breath quickens. I taste the salt. Feel it in me. Until suddenly, I can’t breathe. My muscles clench like ice snapped frozen.

So, when she is invited to accompany a group of female artists, writers and musicians on a boat trip from South America to Antarctica who intend to make work about the changing landscape, she is adamant that she will not go.

News of Maggie’s death, and a brief return trip to Sydney to be with Mac, changes that. Oli braves the ocean once again to help Mac pour Maggie’s ashes into the sea so that ‘she becomes part of the ocean’:

She becomes a deep-sea current. Seashell bones on the summer tide. Maggie becomes something else.

In the final chapter of the book, ‘Sea Ice’, Oli experiences the strange landscape and climate of Ushuaia, beyond which is the Beagle Channel, Isla Navarino, and the Drake Passage ‘stretching all the way to Antarctica’. And then she is on a ship, reliving some of the horrors of the ‘Sea Monster’ chapter but surviving, coming to terms with her terrors and healing.

On the ship, amongst the women, Oli finds new strength, and comes to see that the ocean is the one constant in her life, surrounding the world, linking past and present, everything and everyone. Immersing herself in its icy waters, she hears again the whale song, which for her is ‘both an ending and a beginning’:

Beneath icebergs suspended in the grey, I open my eyes. Darkness is endless, all stretching. There’s whale song. The song starts, or stops.

…. And suddenly it’s all dark salt, a neck of black pearls… Here, where silence is thick like muscle, a body ancient and strong …. I’m Queen of the tide, full and round, swelling, overflowing. I’m a flood. I am strong.

Below Deck is a remarkably ambitious novel. Its chapters span an arc of emotions, people, landscapes and lands. And Oli, who tells her own story, tells it in language which is often poetic, imaginative and allusive. The title, too, suggests not only Oli’s sailing experiences but also the hidden psychological depths which come from those experiences. Not everyone will be attuned to Oli’s way of seeing and describing her world, but those who are will very much enjoy this book.

Sophie Hardcastle Below Deck Allen & Unwin 2020 PB 290pp $29.99

Dr Ann Skea is a freelance reviewer, writer and an independent scholar of the work of Ted Hughes. She is author of Ted Hughes: The Poetic Quest (UNE 1994). Her work is internationally published and her Ted Hughes webpages (//ann.skea.com/) are archived by the British Library.

You can buy Below Deck from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW here, and from Booktopia here.

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