Picador, $29.99 pb, 304 pp, 9781743537176
Shortly after her son, Luke, was murdered by his father, Rosie Batty spoke of the non-discriminatory nature of family violence: ‘No matter how nice your house is, how intelligent you are. It can happen to anyone, and everyone.’ If Batty’s is an example of the less easily imagined site of domestic violence, Anna Spargo-Ryan’s second novel, The Gulf, presents us with a more conventional alternative: a disadvantaged environment, a mother (Linda) who loses herself in each man she encounters, and her children, Skye and Ben, who pick up the slack. But when Linda meets Jason, a shady bloke in ‘import–export’, and the three move from Adelaide to his home in ‘shithole’ Port Flinders, incipient violence turns overt, erratic mothering becomes neglect, and Skye is forced to protect herself and Ben, and to make decisions that will affect them all.
By creating a stereotypically dysfunctional scenario, setting it out immediately – with impressive economy – and making sixteen-year-old Skye the narrator, Spargo-Ryan averts a deep consideration of moral and psychological ambiguity in domestic abuse – what brings a perpetrator to this point? How might a partner collude with him or her? Shades of grey are reserved for Skye and her young half-brother, with other characters generally broad-brushed good, or not. Linda’s compulsion to impress Jason through a desperate kind of subservience, for instance, is unexamined and unequivocal. It is also frighteningly funny:
Jason whispered into his phone. Mum buzzed around him, sweeping and straightening. She bought a vacuum cleaner from Kmart and pushed that around him too, picking up dust that hadn’t had time to accumulate yet.
‘Linda,’ he said, ‘can you fucking not?’ and pointed at his ear.
‘I’ll put it on eBay,’ she said, and sat next to him on the couch with her hand on his knee.