The Secrets at Ocean’s Edge…
About the Book:
1932. Ernie and Lily Hass, and their daughter, Girlie, have lost almost everything in the Depression; all they have keeping their small family together are their secrets. Abandoning their failing wheat farm and small-town gossip, they make a new start on the west coast of Australia where they begin to build a summer guesthouse. But forming new alliances with the locals isn’t easy.
Into the Hasses’ new life wanders Lily’s shell-shocked brother, Tommy, after three harrowing years on the road following his incarceration. Tommy is seeking answers that will cut to the heart of who Ernie, Lily, and Girlie really are.
Inspired by the author’s own family history, The Secrets at Ocean’s Edge is a haunting, memorable and moving tale of one family’s search for belonging. Kali Napier breathes a fever-pitch intensity into the story of these emotionally fragile characters as their secrets are revealed with tragic consequences.
Kali Napier may be a debut author but she is certainly no novice. The Secret’s at Ocean’s Edge is an incredible novel, a story layered with all of the hallmarks that make for an Australian classic.
Set in Australia during 1932, in an area of Western Australia where everyone knows everyone else’s business – and if they don’t, you can bet they’ll find out – the nation is in the grips of the Depression with its population still feeling the immediate effects of the Great War. Shame and pride stitch together the social fabric of people’s lives within The Secrets at Ocean’s Edge and I feel this novel might be one of the most authentic I’ve read in a very long time. Kali has captured Australia within this era to perfection: the small town atmosphere where the shame at everyone knowing your business and the pride associated with not wanting everyone to know your business dictates the pattern of your life; the deep seated fear of anyone who wasn’t white; the expectations that women go from being submissive daughters to submissive wives, where the very notion of a woman working is a challenge to her husband’s ability to provide for his family; the judgement attached to those deemed ‘not a real man’; a nation full of people caught between mounting their high horses and cutting down the tall poppies. I loved this novel, enjoyed every beautifully evocative sentence and I will admit to lingering over the last 100 pages because I didn’t want it to end.
The Secrets at Ocean’s Edge is told in alternating chapters between Lily, her husband Ernie, her brother Tommy, and her daughter Girlie. I have deliberately mentioned all these characters here in terms of their relationship to Lily because to my mind, this is very much Lily’s story. She’s the linchpin here, the stationary point that each of the other characters orbit around, and indeed, for Ernie, Tommy, and Girlie, seeking Lily’s approval was a driving force for each of them. Indeed, Ernie never seemed to be able to make his wife happy, Girlie was seemingly a constant disappointment to her mother, and Tommy was a millstone around Lily’s neck that she felt obligated to endure.
Perhaps on the surface all of these things seemed to be the case, yet Lily was a much more complicated character than that and Kali did an excellent job of having Lily walk a very fine line between shrew and martyr. I felt for Lily, the burden of all of her secrets stacking up and weighing her down. Unable to really rely on Ernie, as his track record was not all that great. Yet even Ernie roused my empathy towards the end. As the story progressed and you got a real handle on who Ernie was, even his ‘second son syndrome’ ceased to aggravate. I mean, essentially, he was a bit of an idiot and truly brought most of his problems down onto himself, but he was also the victim of not being ‘a true Aussie bloke’. Shame at his war experiences and his failings as a provider had shaped Ernie into a prickly and prideful man who had to a certain degree sacrificed his own empathy for ambition. The marriage between Lily and Ernie had a ring of authenticity to it, and it was here that Ernie proved himself in terms of honour; he never, despite Lily’s lack of attention to him, pressed his ‘rights’ upon her as a husband. He adored her and wanted her adoration in turn and never really gave up on the ideal of it. I thought this showed a depth to Ernie’s character that forgave the shallow exterior that dominated his day to day existence. As a dutiful daughter, an obliging sister, a reluctant wife, and a disappointed mother, Lily was a woman who had suppressed herself to the point where she no longer was her own self. I enjoyed the unravelling of Lily’s web and the anticipation that she would one day find herself again, if only she would just let all of the secrets go.
Never more does Kali’s skill as a writer shine than when you are immersed in the chapters told from Girlie’s and Tommy’s perspectives. In terms of Girlie, telling a story through the eyes of a child can be a powerful writing technique, but only if it is done very well, which in this case, it is. There’s a stunningly honest simplicity to Girlie; she calls it like she sees it, as the majority of children will. They are yet to begin filtering, and Girlie was on the cusp of that, one foot still on the side of being a child, the other edging into womanhood. She was beginning to see that some secrets needed to be kept and some needed to be disclosed, but her youth put her in a position of not fully being able to reconcile the consequences of being entirely honest and transparent at all times. There were moments of true heartbreak for Girlie, particularly when she was misconstruing her mother’s feelings towards her. And this is why telling part of the story from Girlie’s point for view works so well: the perceptions of a child vary greatly to that of an adult and their confusion about events, their questioning about what’s going on and why begs notice. For example, when Girlie first meets Ruby, she can’t really understand why Ruby wouldn’t be allowed to go to school with her or be friends with her openly. She sees Ruby as a fellow companion, oblivious to the fact that Ruby is Aboriginal and the laws that were in place – not to mention the prejudices – to prevent their daily interaction. Ruby is just another girl to Girlie. What’s the problem with being friends with her? Girlie’s questioning of her own identity throughout the novel was particularly poignant and at times crushing to consider. She really was such a beautiful girl and I just wanted to reach into the pages and give her a big hug.
Out of each of the main characters, I quickly formed a soft spot for Tommy, Lily’s brother. He is suffering from severe PTS and has been living the life of a homeless wanderer since being discharged from a hospice for soldiers suffering from the effects of the war, a place that didn’t seem to help him all that much in the end, except to give him a few coping techniques that didn’t quite match up to the extent of his needs. Lily is his anchor, the one person he relies on for his memories. He looks to her for the truth about who he is given that he cannot fully rely on his own mind. The lines of the present and the past are blurred for Tommy. He has some very obvious triggers and some not so obvious ones. He blacks out at the most inconvenient times and has no control over himself while experiencing an episode, nor can he fully recollect his actions once he returns to himself. In terms of depicting PTS in a realistic fashion, I have nothing but the highest of praise for Kali’s character development of Tommy. She didn’t sugar coat his suffering, nor did she avoid making us uncomfortable when presented with his actions. The ignorance of PTS as a credible ailment has truly terrible consequences and leads to needless suffering for all involved. Tommy is but one of countless young men who would have returned home from experiencing a level of horror that is beyond our capacity to truly visualise, yet these men were then expected to just get back into the groove of their old lives, get a job, get a wife, be a provider, be a man and step up. The mental anguish that Tommy experienced every second of every day was so well depicted by Kali. It’s only with regard to Tommy that I ever judged Lily harshly. She let him down, over and over. He relied on her honesty but her secrets confused his already confused mind to the point where tragedy was inevitable. Such a realistic interpretation of what living with such turmoil must be like.
The Secrets at Ocean’s Edge is an explicitly Australian novel, from the dialogue through to the way of life, everything is comfortingly familiar and glaringly apparent. The setting is richly depicted and incorporated into the narrative fully. The story unfolds at good even pace and with so many secrets, I felt Kali was particularly skilled at disclosing these in a way that they just slipped into the narrative, surprising you yet also making you aware that they were there all along, just waiting to be discovered. The Secrets at Ocean’s Edge is Kali Napier’s first novel but you would never know it if you hadn’t been told beforehand. This is a fine achievement, a literary historical fiction novel that I think will sit right up there at the top in a class of its own.
Thanks is extended to Hachette Australia for providing me with an advance copy of The Secrets of Ocean’s Edge for review. I’d like to especially thank Kali Napier for putting me forward as an early reviewer of her novel.
About the Author:
Kali Napier worked in Bangladesh as an anthropologist on gender programs before working as an Aboriginal family history researcher for the Queensland government and as a Native Title anthropologist in the mid-west of Western Australia, the setting for The Secrets at Ocean’s Edge. The novel was longlisted for the Bath Novel Award, as was her first manuscript – also a finalist in the Hachette Australia Manuscript Development Program. Kali is currently an MPhil candidate in creative writing at the University of Queensland. The character of Ernie in The Secrets at Ocean’s Edge is based on her great-grandfather, who settled briefly in Dongara during the Depression. Kali now lives in Queensland with her two children.
To follow Kali’s news, check in with her at the following places:
The Bath Novel Award is open to unpublished writers from across the world. First prize is £2,000. The winner and shortlisted writers get introductions to literary agents. It’s open to novels of every genre, for adult or young adult (13+) readers.