Review: ‘One Would Think the Deep’ by Claire Zorn

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Sam fell into a pattern without making a conscious decision. Out of the water he was messed up, he had turned every good thing he had to shit. In the water he was Minty Booner’s cousin and he would take on any wave that rose up against him. Recklessness or measured risk – the hazy space in-between was solace.

In the summer of 1997, 17-year old Sam Hudson catches his mother as she collapses, felled by an aneurysm. Sam hasn’t seen his Auntie Lorraine Booner in 7 years, but she is the only family he has left. Lorraine’s knee-jerk reaction is to ask Sam if his grandmother can take him in, but she agrees to take him in at a push. With nothing but his skateboard and a few random belongings stuffed into garbage bags, Sam trades Sydney for a camp bed in the small windowless spare room at his Aunt’s house on the surf coast. His aunt won’t look him in the eye, and his cousin Shane makes it clear from the outset that Sam isn’t welcome, but Shane’s younger brother Michael ‘Minty’ greets Sam with Labrador-like enthusiasm. Sam is surprised at how easy it was between him and Minty after all this time, but despite his efforts to emulate Minty’s chilled lifestyle, Sam struggles to escape the grief of his mother’s death and his need to uncover the family secret that led to the 7-year estrangement.

Just as she did with The Protected, Claire Zorn perfectly captures the emotional chaos of grief. Sam spends much of One Would Think the Deep trying not to think of his mother, or of the pointlessness of her death. Sam realises he can switch off the anger and sadness he feels while he is out surfing with Minty. But, surfing is not a peaceful and meditative experience for Sam, as time and time again he is dumped and slammed into the ocean floor, salt water burning through his nose and his chest. Sam turns to violence as a desperate means to stop himself from falling into the black hole of grief, and to somehow reassert himself as a strong masculine figure, but each violent encounter brings him one step closer to losing what little family he has left.

Sam struggles with perceived notions of masculinity, which is shown through his struggle to establish a relationship with Gretchen. He is both envious and fearful of emotional vulnerability. The struggle between masculinity and femininity is cleverly explored through 90’s music. Jeff Buckley is referenced throughout the novel. As Claire discussed at The Melbourne Writers Festival, Jeff Buckley’s vulnerable, effeminate persona was at odds with the hyper-masculine grunge era of the 1990’s. The music of Kurt Cobain fills Sam with a powerful yet restless anger, while Jeff Buckley leaves Sam feeling envious, as Buckley presents himself in a raw emotional state without having his masculinity called into question.

Minty’s perpetually cheerful extroverted persona compliments Sam’s reserved introspective nature, but Minty is just as lost as Sam, as he struggles with navigating through family trauma and the pressure of making it as a pro surfer. Minty tries to show strength through grotesque misogynistic behaviour, through objectification of Gretchen and the manner in which he treats his best friend, Ruby. On the one hand, Ruby’s friendship with Minty allows her privilege out in the surf, but Minty keeps her at a distance by sleeping around. Ruby can more than hold her own, both in the water and around Minty and his friends. Ruby has her own struggles to contend with, as she grapples with her indigenous heritage. Claire wrote the character of Ruby in consultation with the Woolyungah Indigenous Centre at the University of Wollongong.

The family revelation was admittedly predictable, but this did not detract from the readability of One Would Think the Deep. The focus of the novel was not so much the events leading up to Sam’s arrival at his aunt’s home, but whether he can reconcile with his past in order to navigate towards a hopeful future. Claire Zorn has once again created a great mix of believable characters. While Ruby may be the only likeable character, it is the fallibility, vulnerability and earnestness of each of the characters that makes them compelling. As with The Protected, Claire does not present a final conclusion for each of the characters, but there is enough presented about the ensemble throughout the novel to indicate how their lives continue on after the final page.

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Review: ‘Frankie’ by Shivaun Plozza

Frankie

I leave my life up to fate for a few minutes and look what happens. If karma’s a bitch then fate is her psychopathic cousin. You know, the one no one invites to family reunions because she makes the little kids cry.

Frankie has been suspended from school and is facing possible expulsion. Her Aunt Vinnie is at her wits end, her best friend Cara is at risk of getting into trouble by association, her cheating ex-boyfriend is going all doe-eyed, and there’s a cop hanging around. Not exactly an ideal time for Frankie to receive a call from a boy named Xavier, who delivers a bitch-slap from fate when he tells her that he’s her brother. The revelation pushes to the surface the traumatic relationship Frankie had with their mother, Juliet, who dumped Frankie at the Collingwood Children’s Farm when she was just four years old. Before Frankie can even begin to make sense of this new family dynamic, Xavier disappears. Frankie needs to find her brother, to figure out what having a brother even means, but can she do that without getting expelled and pushing Vinnie past breaking point?

Frankie is an exciting narrator and protagonist to follow because literally pulls no punches. She tells it like she sees it, and won’t back down from a fight. The narration is filled with brilliant dry one-liners observations and an honest portrayal of what it is to be a teenage girl. A key strength of the novel is the complexity of the characters. Mr Tran is a minor character who has a major impact by the mere act of sitting silently by Frankie’s side while Vinnie goes into bat with the principal. Vinnie, Frankie’s aunt, has been pushed to her limit by Frankie, but can still break right in the thick of an argument with Frankie to crack up laughing at a joke.

Cara is Frankie’s best friend and fearless ally, who also frequents the principal’s office. Cara’s approach is always to defend Frankie first and ask questions later. Cara and Frankie are great characters to follow, so much so that it was a little disappointing when a love interest came on the scene, as I would have been thrilled if focus was on the love between friends rather than romantic love. That’s not to say I wasn’t all misty-eyed while reading poignant moments between Frankie and her love interest, or that romantic love dominated the novel. The banter between Cara and Frankie, their propensity to get each other into trouble, and their similar headstrong personalities that makes them such great friends while also potentially setting them up for epic fights made them an exciting duo to watch. I was greedy to read more of their friendship, and found the romantic love interest came at the expense of the friendship.

The physicality of Collingwood is beautifully entwined with the story from beginning to end. The smells, sights and sounds illicit not only a strong sense of physical place, but also a strong sense of emotional place. From magpies clashing over scraps while Frankie waits outside the principal’s office, to the hum of the drinks fridge in the Emporium being the only sound to break the tense silence between Frankie and Vinnie, to the stench of ‘rotting fruit, Spanish donuts, pigeon poo, baby vomit and hairy-guy odour’ at the Saturday market Frankie really wants to leave so she can find out where her brother is. Shivaun’s evocative world-building is the greatest achievement of the novel.

Frankie is a sharp, raw, hilarious, heartbreaking and uplifting debut.

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