‘The Gulf’ explores the family dynamics of abuse and its effects on children
Anna Spargo-Ryan’s 2016 novel, The Paper House, a first-person narrative about a woman who loses her child in late pregnancy, was a remarkably assured debut. Her lively writing rendered the well-worn ground of depression and grief with a sparkling realism, generating a gut-punch of emotional truthfulness.
Her second book, The Gulf (Picador Australia, $29.99), follows less than a year later. Again she chooses a grim subject: the family dynamics of abuse, and in particular its effect on children. Like other writers such as Emily Maguire or Charlotte Wood, Spargo-Ryan writes a kind of gritty domestic realism that brings a lucid literary intelligence to bear on feminine experience. Crucially, the female characters in these books are complex subjects at the fulcrum of events, rather than objects or catalysts of action.
The Gulf is a coming-of-age tale. It follows 16-year-old Skye – who lives in Adelaide with her mother, Linda, and her 10-year-old brother, Ben – as she attempts to navigate a mysterious and often violent adult world.
As with The Paper House, a strong theme in The Gulf is a child’s burden of responsibility when parents are dysfunctional. Linda is a woman in trouble, a sole parent who has had a series of relationships. Neither Skye nor Ben’s fathers are present in the story, although they both figure as absences. Linda’s latest lover is the dubious Jason, and the intimacy develops alarmingly fast: he is living in their small apartment within days. When their rental is sold, Linda moves her family into Jason’s house in Port Flinders, a hamlet in rural South Australia, where she is to help him with his secret “business”.
Skye is the primary carer for both her brother and her mother, but when Jason’s creepy predatoriness evolves into abuse her loyalty comes down on the side of her brother, a bright, funny boy who is possibly on the autism spectrum. She attempts to protect him in a strange new environment, and increasingly from Jason’s emotional and physical violence.
At the same time she is coping with her own loneliness. She meets Raf, the unsettlingly nice captain of the local football club, who becomes her boyfriend. Finally, under the excuse of doing work experience for school, Skye gets a job at the local supermarket, putting up with sexual harassment from her boss so she can earn enough money to run away with Ben.
The great strength of Spargo-Ryan’s writing is its vibrant rendering of everyday banalities, which are described with sensuous precision. In The Paper House, this lent the prose an air of surreality while registering the protagonist’s dislocated psychic states. It has a slightly different effect in The Gulf, although it still serves to express dislocations, both psychic and physical: for one thing, it’s notably less lyrical. The writing is particularly effective in conveying the emotional callousness behind different kinds of violence. Spargo-Ryan does this with a light hand, leavening her story with wry observational humour.
Linda’s neglect of her children and her inexorable slide into Jason’s domination is shown without judgement, as a child might accept it, worthy of note in contrast with other realities. Skye remarks, with dry surprise, as Raf’s mother welcomes him home from school, “a woman wearing actual clothes … not shouting at anyone”. Her anger and fear for her mother is mostly subsumed in her anxiety for her brother: we get Skye’s tightening sense of desperation as the situation worsens, stroked in with telling details.
Jason himself is a cipher, a locus of sinister mystery: the locked room where he conducts his business is like the chamber in Bluebeard’s castle, which when unlocked signals disaster. As readers we see him through Skye’s experience, a source of inexplicable behaviours that have increasingly devastating effects. Skye makes no attempt to understand him; her major attitude towards him is indifference or, increasingly, fear.
The Gulf doesn’t reach the emotional intensity of The Paper House, and although it conveys the turbulence of adolescence with a sure hand I felt some longueurs. It sits a little uneasily as not-quite young adult fiction: along with its sometimes brutal realism there is an oddly incongruous feeling of wish fulfilment or fairytale. But the writing impels you through the narrative, always vital, often funny. Spargo-Ryan is definitely a writer to watch.