Below Deck is one of those books that found its way into my life by chance. A copy of the novel was sent over to me from Allen & Unwin and I hadn’t heard of it until I opened my mail to see one of the most striking covers I have seen in recent times. Very quickly I saw trusted friends raving about it and my interest was further piqued. Even deciding to begin reading my copy was a moment of chance. After a busy week of attending my local Writers’ Week, my head full of ideas and swirling thoughts, I picked it up as an escape from the novels I had been hearing about in conversation, unaware of how well it complimented many of the very discussions I had attended. I devoured Below Deck in a single day and it reminded me that some books come into our lives just at the right time to leave a profound effect on the reader.
“And there is the feeling that I’m beyond myself. As if I’m gazing into outer space, watching a galaxy being born. I hold my breath as the universe takes shape in wrinkled corals. Blooms of pink algae flowing like a summer storm.
This underwater world.
All silver and pink. I watch it.
Becoming and unbecoming in a single pause.”
Below Deck follows Olivia, a woman who hears the world in colour. We meet Oliva coming to the end of university life with a boyfriend and a coveted internship, wondering what to do next, when she suddenly wakes on a boat with no memory of how she got there. Developing a friendship with the unusual Mac, the owner of the boat and his close friend Maggie, Oli discovers a life on the ocean full of colours she has never seen before. Four years later we meet Oli in Noumea having lived a life on the open ocean where she takes a job as the only woman on a yacht sailing to Auckland. As a single woman isolated with five men, Oli learns just how dark and dangerous these men can be and that the open sea can be your enemy when there is no one around to hear you scream. From the Coral Sea to London to Antarctica the reader follows Oli’s journey of self-discovery and healing after the damage these men inflict.
Before I get too far in I’ll warn you that Below Deck does have some rather confronting trigger warnings for domestic abuse and sexual violence towards women that can be distressing. Despite the traumatic nature, this aspect of the plot really spoke to me and the current relevance in society, in particular how ingrained and internalised domestic abuse is and how effectively and ruthlessly it is executed by men who say they love the women they are tormenting. Hardcastle does an exceptional job of writing a relationship that is dangerously relatable and equally heartbreaking. Further in the novel, with Oli at sea with five men, the reader also witnesses the chilling power imbalances, the disregard of the rights of an individual for the pleasure of another, pack mentality and just how little women are believed leading to the hesitation to use the word “rape.” I think what hit me hardest was how plausible and common this aspect of the novel was, this is no exaggeration through fiction, this is many women’s lives daily and Hardcastle’s masterful writing really makes the reader feel it.
The writing was a true highlight and was what had me hooked from the first page. The inside cover, a delicious swirl of gold and pastels is stunning and matches the beauty of her words that slide together, fitting perfectly and layering upon each other, building Oli’s landscape of colours. Hardcastle’s play with words, descriptions and sentences is superb and the described blues, pinks and yellows blend together to create a visual canvas that is equal parts enchanting and cruel. The synaesthesia was a fascinating aspect of Oli’s character and it opened her character up, making Oli feel more tangible, almost as though she were real.
The novel is segmented into parts of Oli’s life and further distilled into chapters with distinct and interconnected names. The reader journeys with Oli from the beauty of the sea garden, filled with roses, daisies and blossoms, to the sea monsters of guts and eyes and blood and eventually to the healing sea ice of glaciers and icebergs. On this journey Hardcastle shows us how Oli learns to heal from her traumatic experiences at sea and most importantly stays away from the simplistic trope of “the perfect man” coming in to save the day and fix everything. Healing in this novel comes from understanding and love and support, particularly from women with both similar and different experiences. This is an ultimately feminist novel and I loved the nod to the sisterhood and the inclusion of strong women.
Overall there are some empowering messages contained within and Hardcastle’s grasp on social commentary masterful. Nothing is overstated or exaggerated and her delicate touch is what makes this novel so persuasive. Quips about the damage of coral bleaching and melting glaciers add the urgency of climate change as a current concern and yet Hardcastle never preaches to the reader. This is a quietly intelligent novel that treats the reader with respect. Hardcastle also displays a true love of literature and the literary references contained within can be used to curate a reading list that is a love letter to adventure and the sea.
Below Deck was a memorable read that left me stunned and awed. While I wouldn’t make a direct comparison, if you enjoyed the masterpiece that is Yanagihara’s A Little Life I think this one might speak to you also. If you can handle the trigger warnings I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend reading Below Deck. If you want further reading material this novel also worked well in conversation with Lucia Osborne-Crowley’s I Choose Elena, a memoir into the author’s violent attack as a teenager which I happened to read the day before and Jess Hill’s See What You Made Me Do, an exploration into domestic abuse that I was simultaneously listening to as an audiobook.
By Sophie Hardcastle
290 pages. 2020.