The Gulf by Anna Spargo-Ryan
This is a book that tears your heart out. At times you may even stop reading, and flinch, as if the words on the page could physically hurt you. Yet, for all that, it is lucid and contained. Anna Spargo-Ryan is a writer in command of every sentence, who somehow makes the unspeakable succinct.
The story follows Skye, a sixteen-year-old loner living with her single mother and prodigal ten-year-old brother, Ben. Their life in Adelaide is fairly normal and uneventful, until her mother introduces her latest boyfriend, Jason. Jason is a crude and tattooed thug with a menacing manner. At first, Skye thinks they just have to wait him out and that her mother will lose interest like she has done with previous boyfriends. But things move confusingly fast, and suddenly her mother is working for the self-employed Jason and they are all moving to his hometown of Port Flinders.
Located in South Australia’s Gulf region, Port Flinders is the small town from which the book takes its title. But the ‘gulf’ here is not just geographical: it’s the gulf between rich and poor; between opportunity and disadvantage. Most poignantly, it’s the gulf between Skye and her mother as their home life becomes increasingly dysfunctional. As Skye tries to take care of herself and her brother, the decisions that she is forced to make are increasingly dangerous for both of them.
But it’s not all bleak. Countering the gloominess of the plot is a wonderful friendship between Skye and her brother, and a convincing coming-of-age story. Spargo-Ryan’s prose is viscerally direct, throwing the reader into the (at times, deeply disturbing) action. Evocative descriptions like ‘everything had a gumleaf smell’ embed Skye’s experience in readers’ imaginations. Overall, the story may be ugly, but the storytelling is cathartic.
Hilary Simmons works as a bookseller at Readings at the State Library Victoria, and as part of the Readings events team.