No More Boats
Although this novel opens with the disappearance of Harold Holt and ends with the collapse of the Twin Towers, most of it is focused on a brief, important moment that feels both distant from the present day and uncomfortably close. No More Boats tells the story of how Antonio Martone, the patriarch of a Parramatta family in late 2001, reaches an “existential crisis” that coincides with our own when we can’t decide what to do about the Tampa and its 438 human passengers.
As the author points out, the country was about to make an unfortunate link between Muslims on boats and Muslims on planes. This novel wants us to make different links, between people on boats in 2001 and those on boats in the past, including the one that brought Antonio to Australia.
Antonio has built his family home on Parramatta’s single hill, from which he can see “those tight brick rectangles of government housing, the fibro cottages, the old colonials, the wide stretches of nothing space in between everything”. He’s a builder on the eve of a retirement party – not a voluntary retirement, but a horrific one – and he is drastically in need of something to do. His wife, Rose, suggests volunteering. His son, Francis, smokes weed and works at the same construction sites as his father. His daughter, Clare, pretends she is still a schoolteacher while she works in a bookstore and slowly becomes herself. Meanwhile, on TV, all anyone is talking about is “inundation and floods” of boat people, a “watery invasion” – “Then there was John Howard and his eyebrows, and he was saying, ‘ordinary, average Australians,’ over and over again”.
It’s this concept of ordinariness Castagna probes in the book, perhaps more than the politics that introduced the century and perhaps more than her characters, who are neatly drawn. She takes obvious pains to construct the people and the time, but mainly to show that nobody is “from” here and that structures such as our families, jobs, identities and homes can only be a temporary refuge.
Political fictions can feel didactic and uncanny in their own times; they might read better from a historical vantage. But this one is greatly aided by the author’s fluid prose, and perhaps by the sense that our discourse has been broken in more ways than we can easily account for. If we need new ways of speaking to each other, novels such as this can only help. CR
Giramondo, 234pp, $26.95
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 24, 2017 as "Felicity Castagna, No More Boats". Subscribe here.