Nicole Melanson ~
I’ve read a lot of American books about the Great Depression (including one of my all-time favorite novels, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath) and am fascinated by the sombre tone of them. It’s one thing to create a sense of drama when you’re writing about war, domestic violence, or urban crime, and quite another to keep a story moving when the characters are as burdened as they are in Kali Napier’s Australian Depression novel, The Secrets at Ocean’s Edge.
This is the story of Ernie and Lily Hass and their daughter, Girlie, moving to a new town in an attempt to revitalize themselves after their wheat farm fails. This echoes the migrant journey of countless others before them and proves as fraught with difficulty. Ingratiating themselves into their new community challenges the Hasses in both obvious and unexpected ways, especially after Lily’s shell-shocked brother, Tommy, turns up and starts undermining all their efforts with his ongoing mental health issues and desperation to make sense of where the family’s history fits into the changing world around them.
The Secrets at Ocean’s Edge is essentially a mystery, but its momentum is driven by the characters rather than the plot. This is not a whodunnit, and the big reveals towards the end feel inevitable rather than shocking. To my mind, this plays a large part in this book’s success. There’s no tidy redemption here, no quick washing of hands and consciences, particularly in relation to the “Aboriginal Problem” running in parallel (which reminds me of the interwoven exploration of Mexican culture in American novels of the same time period). The story holds each character to the consequences of their choices and forces them to keep moving forward without wholly freeing them from their past.
One of the things I find really interesting about this book is that the time period and setting are crucial to the story, and yet, I could see all these characters existing and playing out their interpersonal conflicts in a more modern context. The idea that people cast their lot in life with what they have and try to make the best of it holds a degree of universal truth, as does the notion that some seem destined to fail no matter what they do.
It’s also worth noting that the burden of each secret in this book isn’t the secret itself but the shame that accompanies it. And that shame spares no one; the young characters fear rejection, failure, and humiliation as much as the older ones. And that is what makes The Secrets at Ocean’s Edge uniquely a Depression novel—the idea that a society is under such duress that the stress of it trickles down into every facet of an individual community, impressing itself upon even children.
Kali Napier creates a constant friction between reader and book. Her characters are sympathetic but often unlikeable, and there is a sense of wanting to find out what happens to them without being bound by their fate. This mirrors the way the characters interact with each other, again, underscoring how the true impact of a Depression greatly exceeds the associated economic hardship by ricocheting throughout the collective unconscious and destabilizing all the human relationships that make up the very fabric of society.
The Secrets at Ocean’s Edge can be purchased here:
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