So, disclosure time: I first met Kali a few years ago through the now defunct Harper Collins Authonomy website. I was just starting to put The Last Roundhead together, whilst Kali was writing a wonderful historical piece set in Nineteenth Century Calcutta featuring the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore. Kali’s descriptive prose was rich and dripping with imagery, and, having walked the streets she described, I was transported in time and place. It was clear, even on a site packed with talented writers, that her writing was something special.
I was then delighted to get hold of a copy of her debut this week. It’s not the piece she was working on back then (‘It is nothing like it!’ has been a consistent refrain whenever I have asked the author) instead a dark, haunting novel set in Western Australia during the depression called The Secrets at Ocean's Edge.
The Hass family (Ernie, Lily and daughter Girlie) have decamped to Western Australia after their farm fails. They start to build a guesthouse in a small town and try to rebuild their lives in their new community. A community that reflects the narrow views on race and gender and nosey morality of the thirties perfectly. A what will the neighbours think attitude that forces people to keep secrets, and Lily and Ernie have secrets from each other and their neighbours. Even Girlie is keeping secrets. They are soon joined by Lily’s brother. A shell-shocked veteran called Tommy who has questions and needs answers, perhaps his sanity depends on them.
The story is told in alternating chapters from these four main protagonists. Lily is so evocative of a whole generation and class of women, not just in Australia, that dealt with the consequences of the depression, social deprivation, trying to hold a family together and a place in community. She is really the focal point for the novel, I think: her relationships with Ernie, Girlie and Tommy are really central. I love Girlie as a character and the juxtaposition between the mother and daughter/adult and child point of view is so clever and brilliantly done. Ernie, a man who is never going to be a great success, but adores his wife even if it’s mostly not reciprocated. Tommy, barely holding it together with PTSD, is fabulously drawn if tragic. The fragility of the human condition and relationships are explored through their eyes as the secrets that bind them unravel.
This is a stunning novel. I have always marvelled (and burned a little with envy) at the effortless way Kali weaves plot, prose and dialogue together. She has excelled with The Secrets at Ocean's Edge: it is heartbreaking, thought provoking but never overwhelming. The novel fantastically transports the reader in history with believable, flawed, characters and a gripping plot. This is a book that deserves to win awards!
I have a bet with Kali that she will become a best seller before I do – whoever is first owes the other a drink - I have a feeling she is going to have to pay up on that pint before too long.
The Secrets at Oceans Edge is available now on Amazon as an ebook and the paperback will be released in May from Little Brown.