Saturday, August 2, 2008

Book review: Secrets of the Sea: a novel by Nicholas Shakespeare

Secrets of the Sea is a gorgeous new novel, set at the end of the world in a small town in Tasmania, and focusing on the love- and life-story of two tormented people, Merridy and Alex Dove.

Alex is an orphan, both of his parents killed by a logging truck accident when he was only eleven. After being brought back to England by relatives for his school years, he returns as an adult to the tiny, fictitious town of Wellington Point on the coast of Tasmania, to sell his parents’ farm. Despite knowing nothing about farming, Alex falls in love with the land and determines to make a go of it – repairing the farmhouse and outbuildings, learning to plant and harvest crops, investing in a good sized mob (Australian for “flock”) of sheep.

He’s just about to the point where he can break even when he meets Merridy, a beautiful but removed girl who is being chased by all the single fellows in Wellington Point. A civil engineering student in Melbourne, Merridy has dropped out of school to help her mother nurse her stroke-ridden father; Merridy’s father has basically come home to wither and die. This isn’t the only sorrow plaguing her family, however: years ago Merridy’s brother Hector, age seven, wandered off and disappeared forever. His body was never found; her mother has never been quite right since then; and Merridy has vowed to never love anyone because of the potential for hurt.

Alex is smitten with her and she likes his prepossession, his ability to work with his hands and his quiet hurt, which is so similar to her own. They marry – even though she does not love him, trusting him when he says she will grow into it – and settle into farm life, hoping for children. There are lambs and chicks and calves and puppies a-plenty, but no children for the Doves. It weighs heavily upon them, threatening to shatter the fragile life they have built with each other. When a mighty storm batters the harbor, wrecking a touring boat and casting ashore Kish, a youthful juvenile delinquent, Alex and Merridy’s lives do implode but the resulting devastation is just what these two wounded people need to truly heal with each other.

This novel, while not an overtly happy story, is nonetheless a joy to read. Although focusing on Alex and Merridy, the other characters weave in and out of the narrative – no one is superfluous, everything once mentioned comes into play later in the book. A couple of minor characters (an old man who writes the town newsletter and an itinerant English spearfisherman) have the funny role of Greek chorus, watching the action and commenting on it, but only being tangentially involved; it’s unusual but it works. The author, Nicholas Shakespeare, who lives in England but spends four months out of the year in Tasmania, does a wonderful job of evoking the joys and tribulations of small town life: the busybodies, the network of support, the impact of personal tragedy on the community as a whole.

Secrets of the Sea is a fantastic, thoughtful novel. It is an intense love story, grounded in earth and saltwater, and in love as much with Tasmania as with its protagonists.

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