Saturday, August 27, 2016

The young man and the sea: One Would Think the Deep, by Claire Zorn

A big wave rolled toward them… Sam paddled for it, there was no fear. He didn’t think about what it would be like to be held down under it; he didn’t think about anything. He met the wave as it crested and popped up onto his feet with more fluidity than he’d ever managed before. He drove the weight of his left leg down like he had seen Minty do, which pushed the board forward, accelerating across the wave. He felt it more strongly than before, the sensation Minty tried so clumsily to describe: a delicate paradox where he was, for a short time, in control of his world while simultaneously being at the mercy of the ocean. 

Reeling from the sudden death of his mother, Sam is yanked from the world he knows and thrust upon an aunt and cousins he lost touch with long ago. No longer sure of who he is or what he wants from life, Sam focusses purely on survival, adapting to his new life by shadowing his cousin Minty, whose bleached dreads and easy grin are known all over the coastal town. Minty is going to make it big in the surfing world, everyone says, and because there is nothing else for him to do, Sam follows Minty straight into the surf, stuffing his messy grief down into the deepest parts of himself.

Sam’s sea is a sea of biblical might, terror, and awe. It is a living but untamed entity, a being with the power to take life and to give it, to wound and to heal. It is Sam’s friend and his enemy, the tangible representation of his grief and confusion. It is a torture chamber, wringing and refining Sam into something else, and Sam throws himself into its embrace time and again.

Yet the sea is not enough. Chameleon-like, Sam drifts into his extended family and attempts to blend in. But the brokenness Sam brings with him from his home life in Sydney meets an altogether new kind of brokenness in Minty’s family, where secrets are currency and Sam is dirt-poor. Sam’s grief simply happens to him, and his healing occurs in the same way. But it’s not without pain; as he shifts and evolves, his grief is buffeted and bruised, brought into the light and then shoved back into the dark.

Sam’s story is both a coming-of-age and a family saga. It’s a story of growing up, of first love, of race, of family, identity, and of mortality. It grapples with the seeming pointlessness of living a life that, at some point, is inevitably going to end. The writing is crisp, spare, adolescently blunt, and captivating. The characters provoke recognition; we see in Sam, in Minty, in Sam’s aunty Lorraine, in his jealous cousin Shane, and in his grandmother, something of ourselves. Our uncertainty, our fatally flawed attempts to love each other while protecting ourselves from our own fragility, are all echoed back to us. These characters are ones we love even when they are not lovable – and they are frequently not. There are teenage boys ruled by hormones and peer pressure, adults who aren’t dependable, pivotal family members who shoot through when the going gets tough. Yet somehow their stories begin to fill in the gaps of Sam’s broken past, hinting at redemption. We see these characters and their fumbling attempts at grace, and we love them for it.

And it's impossible for me to write about this book without also commenting on the fierce rush of nostalgia this book generated for me. I was transported back to small-town New South Wales -- into, in fact, my own teen years in the nineties. While I’ve never been a surfer, I spent big chunks of young adulthood in coastal towns, including a significant stint in a tiny Northern Territory town with a hearty indigenous population and a strong surf culture. My best friends at the time were a bunch of surfing sisters, and the cute, polite, intimidating older boys in the local church were half made of ocean themselves. The details of this book all ring true to my experience – the fish and chip shop, afternoons spent at the pool, the ongoing struggle to understand the opposite sex, the challenge of learning how to assert oneself, the distasteful inertia of peer pressure which recognises the distastefulness of the accepted norm but offers little clue as to how to break away from it.

This is no saccharine-sweet trip down memory lane, however. The details are grounded, vivid, and real: the music, the fashion, the pop culture references, the nineties modes of communicating and being. I know the towns Zorn writes of, I know these kinds of surfer kids. There is an authenticity which is tangible. The only moment it falters – and most likely only in my eyes – is in the romance, which somehow feels less authentic. I am a romantic at heart, but I’m a cynic too, constantly holding romance up to the light of my admittedly jaded scrutiny. Sam’s love interest and her family give Sam a glimpse of another kind of life, one that he’d never know otherwise, but these moments feel less dynamic than the clashing disharmony with Sam’s limping and angry family. The love story occasionally feels like a teenage fantasy, healing wounds that can’t otherwise be healed, but that’s okay. If anyone could do with a teenage fantasy, it’s Sam.

One Would Think the Deep is a gloriously-written, uncompromising addition to Australia’s beautiful YA fiction tradition. At its heart, it’s about grief. But it’s also a story of young adults growing up into who they are meant to be, and its ending offers a satisfying hint at a new beginning.

One Would Think the Deep
Claire Zorn
UQP 2016, 306 pages