If I were to suggest to you that you ought to read a book about a shipwreck and an alien, would you read it? If someone had made that recommendation to me, I perhaps would never have picked up this novel. And that would have been my great loss. Fortunately being a bookseller, a lot of books cross my path that I might otherwise not have come into contact with, and there are the chance meetings with novels that bring me treasures unexpected. This book is one of those.
To be honest, I almost feel as if I’ve been slimed – just like the Ghostbusters crew when they encountered their first real phastasm. This book is a viscous, rancid devil of a book. It’s clammy and close, and its use of language is utterly alluring.
You are set right on board the ship and only a page into it when you get your first glimpse, as reader, that something’s a little different. There’s something more here. And on you go. And down you go. Down with the ship you go. And down, down, down into the depths of shipwreck despair. The book has by now wrapped a strong tentacle around its reader and there is no getting away from it.
Back on dry land, the reader follows the troubled shipwreck survivor George into family life, and something from the depths of the ocean follows him as well. He is wracked with survivor guilt. He has children, Henry and Georgie. Henry becomes a host to the shape-shifting alien, which takes the form of a birthmark on the boy. Henry feeds it. Through it, Henry has access to other worlds, other depths, other feelings. Henry is given the universe, and at times when his mark leaves him, he is left feeling bereft and stupid.
There is death, debris and decay throughout this novel. Henry has a strange collection. A butcher’s assistant shows Henry a dead man – who is missing his head, lying in the grass not far from town. There’s an unwanted baby. A child dies. Rawson critiques the way human life stomps around, angrily smashing at everything in its path. It could have been a terribly bleak novel. It isn’t. It’s a novel with joy at its heart. It’s a novel which celebrates life. Which finally asks the question, “Isn’t this enough?”
First and foremost, it’s a novel which celebrates language, and storytelling, and how transportive these gifts can be when they are used with such assured and competent skill. While it is based on events surrounding a real shipwreck off South Australia, it is not exactly historical fiction. While it has a shape-shifting alien, and chapters are told in the alien’s ‘voice’, it is not science fiction. It is something else entirely. Read it.