Simon Baker

Two can be as bad as one

Secrets of the Sea<br /> by Nicholas Shakespeare

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Secrets of the Sea

Nicholas Shakespeare

Harvill Secker, pp. 402, £

Secrets of the Sea

by Nicholas Shakespeare

Nicholas Shakespeare’s new novel is set in Wellington Point, an inauspicious fictional Tasmanian town. It is a place offering few prospects: the only jobs are menial, and the only person with any vim is the odious Ray Grogan, an estate agent who seduces local women by comparing them to the Taj Mahal by moonlight. People who move to Wellington Point do so, more often than not, for a quiet life.

One such person is Alex Dove. Alex’s English parents arrived, full of hope, in Wellington Point before Alex was born, but his father became inward and alcoholic, interested only in building ships in bottles. He and his wife were killed in a car crash when Alex was 11, and Alex was sent to England. He went back to Wellington Point at 23 and stayed there, renovating his parents’ old house and farm and trying to find some identity in a place where he is eternally regarded as a ‘pom’.

The novel begins in 1988, four years after his return, when Alex meets Merridy Bowman. Merridy recently dropped out of university to nurse her father who was paralysed in an industrial accident. At the start of the novel, her family move to Wellington Point for the affordable accommodation, and Merridy has a brief romance with Alex. Her father then dies, and her mother leaves, but Merridy stays with Alex on the farm. Together they reside among their unspoken sadness: Merridy is haunted in particular by the disappearance of her younger brother when they were children, and Alex cannot face his parents’ deaths. They marry, and live among the cobwebby ships in bottles, hoping to start a family.

As the years pass and no children appear, it becomes obvious that neither is sufficient alone to eradicate the other’s deeply buried woes, and the relationship drifts into one of polite distance. It reaches a trough when they are penniless and Merridy, dazed by boredom, begins to regret sacrificing a career for life with Alex. However, at that point she starts a business farming oysters, and in 2004 the couple take in Kish, a troubled youth who soon becomes a surrogate companion, son, and (in Merridy’s case) long-lost brother. Changes happen, most of them for the better — but Kish also brings disruption.

Secrets of the Sea gives an astute portrayal of thoughtful characters; occasionally one questions their extreme sensitivity — they seem incapable of shrugging off any aspect of the past — but overall we believe in them. Alex and Merridy are carefully drawn and develop over the years; impressively, the author shows us that their altruistic fostering of Kish has quite selfish motives, and yet this makes them look vulnerable rather than mercenary. After a slightly mannered opening, the prose is elegant and enjoyable to read. The only substantial problem — and one which hampers this novel — is the pacing. For much of the time, we have only two characters and a single narrative thread, namely the struggle between affection and frustration in their marriage, and this is played out too slowly. The speed picks up towards the end, but the overlong opening and middle result in a story which is often admirable but only occasionally gripping.