Coming-of-age stories about teenagers in peril are commonplace but Anna Spargo-Ryan’s delightful second novel, The Gulf, is exceptional in many ways. It’s the story of 16-year-old Skye, who lives in Adelaide with her mother, bank teller Linda, and adorable 10-year-old brother, Ben. The family is down on their luck and it’s a tough existence, but Skye enjoys school and she and Ben have friends.
Then Linda falls in love with Jason, “good-looking, in a balding, tattooed way, which had always been Mum’s type”. He has his own business, “Something in trading. Import-export stuff. Too complicated for us to understand, I bet,” says Linda. Skye can tell he’s trouble from the start but Linda quits her job and drags the kids to live with Jason in Port Flinders, a struggling town on the gulf, north of Adelaide. Unmoored from everyone she knows and at the mercy of two increasingly volatile adults, Skye must take responsibility for her own safety, and for Ben’s.
It’s a page-turning story, but it’s also a realistic and finely calibrated one. Not everything in Skye’s life is terrible. She falls for the charming football hero, Rafferty, and she’s mercifully unself-conscious about being clever. Spargo-Ryan’s adults are disappointing and cruel creatures in the main, but the kids mostly have their act together, or are trying. In this way, it’s a compassionate and uplifting novel. It’s also a rare example of fiction with a genuine working-class world view and an understanding of how an institutional lack of power passes through generations. The kids might be smart, but all The Gulf’s characters are poor and no one is “aspirational” and no one is mocked.
Spargo-Ryan has a wonderful ear for dialogue and that’s where the true characterisation of her people is developed. Much of the lightness in the story comes from Ben, who is obsessed with animals of all kinds, and the wisdom of his friend Amir, but it’s Skye’s voice that makes it so special. Spargo-Ryan doesn’t shy away from the brutality of the world she’s observed and constructed but she is never patronising. There’s no “tsking”, no sense of an older, middle-class Skye looking back from a wiser perspective. Skye’s world is normal to her so she doesn’t treat most of it as a big deal. It’s this extraordinary empathy and immersion that lifts The Gulf above other stories of its type. It deserves to be read by adults and teens alike. LS
Picador, 304pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 10, 2017 as "Anna Spargo-Ryan, The Gulf". Subscribe here.