The Secrets at Ocean’s Edge (Hachette Australia Books 2018), Kali Napier’s debut novel, to be released in January, 2018, is an engaging mystery that provides all the interesting facts of historical research while also being an absorbing tale of family secrets, lies, betrayal and sacrifice.
One of the characters, Ernie, is based on Kali’s great-grandfather, and the story – which is set in Western Australia during the Great Depression – brims with the authenticity and believability that comes from painstaking research and significant investigation into family history and lore. But it is the women in this story who shine: Lily (Ernie’s wife) and their daughter, Girlie. Along with Lily’s brother, Tommy, who has arrived shell-shocked and damaged after his wartime experiences, these four key characters each give their own perspectives as the narrative unfolds. The author makes particular use of these different points of view to revisit the same incident or experience through the lenses of various characters, layering the story with nuance, depth and an inevitable capacity for misunderstandings and deceptions.
I found the setting and the time period thoroughly researched and believable. Kali has authenticated the characters, the landscape and the period through the myriad of small details included in the story – from the hardships of daily life such as washing clothes and bathing, to descriptions of the food and the elements, to school life, transport, mode of dress and more. Lily’s dressmaking expertise, Ernie’s business ventures, and Tommy’s peripatetic lifestyle are depicted in rich and full detail, with the interesting minutiae of their activities immersing the reader in their stories and investing us in their individual lives.
The trauma and horror of war is handled with a particularly deft hand. Tommy’s psychological state is gradually revealed: at first there are only hints of his scarred mind, but as the story progresses, we see firsthand through his actions and his thoughts just how damaged his war experience has left him. The misunderstandings or lack of comprehension of the psychological ravages of conflict echo strongly throughout the book. But Tommy’s behaviour – and indeed, the behaviour of all of the characters – is never excused or minimalised by their past experiences, although it is somewhat justified or explained.
As the title of the book suggests, this is a tale of secrets, and one of the great achievements of the novel is that the author knows how to keep a secret, how to betray a secret, how to pass on a secret and how – and when – to divulge a secret. There are so many secrets in these pages, hidden from some characters by others, or hiding within the characters themselves. Confidences they can’t admit to or won’t share, promises broken, lies told, and always secrets about their pasts undisclosed to others. The slow unfurling of the secrets and the gradual release of information about their family combine to create a level of suspense that is sustained throughout the book, and that kept me guessing until the very end. The last few chapters are short and tense as the page-turning climax reaches its conclusion; the reveals come thick and fast, our understanding of the situation moving between the characters’ perspectives, as realisation dawns that there is so much we have not understood, perhaps not even imagined. What we thought was one person’s motivation turns out to be another; the reason for one event becomes blurred by another’s provocation; what we thought was one intention appears to be something else entirely.
There are several other elements that are done really well. The female characters are strong, gutsy, determined and intuitive, and even though the time in which they lived forces a certain reticence upon them, particularly in their dealings with the men of the book, their inner courage and fortitude shines through in the way they deal with adversity, hardship and conflict. The language of the story is easy to read and authentic, never jarring. The mind and feelings of a young girl – Girlie – are portrayed with sensitivity and a keen ear for dialogue. The petty jealousies, difficulties with friendships, striving to succeed and to please her parents, peer pressure, the demands of schooling, and her childish and undeveloped sense of herself, her worth and her place in the world all seem very real. The back and forth in time – through flashbacks – is also done really well, allowing snippets of the past to intrude upon the present at opportune moments, giving us a flash of understanding about an event from the past and how it has impacted on the current situation. The relentlessness and fruitlessness of the characters’ yearning and scheming, the foolishness of their best laid plans, is also developed nicely, as we struggle along with the characters to make the best of what they’ve got, to improve their situation, and to make up for their mistakes.
And finally, the utter sadness of the depiction of the racism that abounded towards indigenous people at that time – it is there in all its harsh, grim reality. The language used about them and towards them, the acts against them, the rules and laws that governed their every move. This makes for uncomfortable reading, because it feels so wrong and yet it also feels so true – we know that it happened this way, and being confronted by the darkness of our colonial history is painful and unnerving. The Aboriginal characters represented in these pages are often treated with disdain and denigration by the other characters (and this feels a true reflection of what might have happened at the time), but they are treated with respect by the author. Their land, their history, their culture and their connection to country is regarded with deference and subtle veneration.
This novel is pitched as ‘a haunting, memorable and moving tale of one family’s search for belonging’, and I wholeheartedly agree. I thoroughly enjoyed the story and found it difficult to put down.