Set on the rugged Tasmanian south coast, it’s the story of a deep, almost profound brotherly love as Michael and the younger Harry, with their mother dead, learn to look out for each other.
Theirs is an unbreakable bond that helps them deal with a hard-drinking father struggling to make ends meet as an abalone fisherman and who is harbouring a secret that is eating him alive.
It is Harry who takes the brunt of Dad’s wrath, a child little more than a baby when his mother was killed in a car crash. But that was several years ago. Life for the boy is a hard one, deprived of parental love and where food in the house is linked to the number of hours his father spends in the local pub.
Yet gentle, sensitive Harry is not bitter: he knows no better. Generous to a fault, he will save the last of the milk for Michael or spend the last of his (found) money on friends. But he is fearful of his father, a fear made worse by his seasickness, thus ruling out any chances of working at sea. Harry therefore feels he is a disappointment to his surviving parent.
It is Michael who is forced to go out on the boat to work alongside the bitter old man and Jeff, his sidekick. With stiff competition in town and the bank now owning the Lady Ida and everything they have, the men are forced into more treacherous waters to illegally find decent-sized abalone.
Water is the central character of Past the Shallows, and Parrett is at her descriptive best when she talks of the unpredictable and wild nature of the Southern Ocean.
An undoubted metaphor for the boys’ father, the brooding menace of the ocean that controls all their lives is a giver and taker of life. It took away Uncle Nick, whose body has never been found: it is slowly taking away the lives of those left behind. But it has also made local townsman Mr Roberts wealthy, owning several boats and employing most of the men in the area.
A chance encounter with a puppy provides one of the few joyful moments for Harry. But Jake, the playful puppy, leads him to George Fuller. Feared by children (and many adults), George is a deformed outsider who, severely injured many years previously, now lives alone on the edge of town.
Harry overcomes his fear and befriends the lonely old man and the two, both on the edge of a seafaring society, develop a gentle, undemanding friendship.
But instinctively, we know the relationship cannot last.
“There was something coming. Miles had felt it in the water. Seen it. Swell coming in steady, the wind right on it, pushing. It was ground swell. Brand new and full of punch – days away from its peak.”
Reflecting the desolate, rugged Tasmanian south coast, Past the Shallows is hauntingly beautiful yet deeply tragic.