Title: Below Deck
Author: Sophie Hardcastle
Published: March 3rd 2020
Publisher: Allen & Unwin
Genres: Fiction, Contemporary
Rating: 4 stars
Below Deck is the highly anticipated debut novel from author Sophie Hardcastle. A heartbreakingly poetic and haunting story about the vagaries of consent, about who has the space to speak and who is believed.
We choose to breathe, don’t we?
Twenty-one-year-old Olivia hears the world in colour, but her life is mottled grey. Estranged from her parents, and living with her grandfather who is drowning in sadness, Oli faces the reality of life beyond university alone.
When she wakes on a boat with no recollection of how she got there, she accepts the help of two strangers who change the course of her future forever. With Mac and Maggie, Oli learns to navigate a life upon open ocean and the world flowers into colours she’s never seen before.
Four years later, Oli, fluent in the language of the sea, is the only woman among men on a yacht delivery from Noumea to Auckland. In the darkness below deck, she learns that at sea, no one can hear you scream.
Moving to London, Oli’s life at sea is buried. When she meets Hugo, the wind changes, and her memories are dust blown into shapes. Reminding her of everything.
Below Deck is about the moments that haunt us, the moments that fan out like ripples through the deep. So that everything else, becomes everything after.
‘We choose to breathe, I think. And suddenly it’s all dark salt, a neck of black pearls. This story begins here , at the end of the earth. Here, where silence is thick like a muscle, a body ancient and strong. And then it fractures, a cliff face breaking off, dissolving into the sea.’
Sophie Hardcastle’s Below Deck represents a startling rendition to the environment, with particular focus on the language of the sea. It is story of colour, darkness, silence, consent and pain. The author’s background as a scholar, screenwriter and artist, culminates in a poetic approach, regaling the complex life of the lead of this tale, Olivia.
Below Deck unfurls the story of Olivia or Oli, who is twenty one years old when this novel begins its powerful sojourn. When the audience is first acquainted with Oli, it is clear that the relationship Oli has with her family is entangled. Oli resides with her grandfather, a man who is deeply unhappy with the world. Oli is a woman with a special gift, she sees the world in colour, but of late everything seems to be bleak and grey. A fateful incident casts Oli in the path of two pivotal strangers, who become a big part of Oli’s world. In Mac and Maggie, Oli finds comfort and understanding. This couple opens Oli’s eyes to a different world. Oli takes a very different pathway than she expected and she embraces the ocean. The sea becomes a powerful tool in guiding her life direction. Four years down the track, Oli is a strong seafaring woman. She attains a lucrative position on board a yacht from Noumea, bound for Auckland. At first the posting seems like a dream, but the pressure of being the only female on board takes its toll. A terrible incident occurs on board, which changes Oli forever. Below Deck is a forceful story that bends its way into your heart and soul. It is an alarming tale, striking at the core of the silence and stigma surrounding women’s experiences of assault.
Following the release of Running Like China in 2015 and Breathing Under Water in 2016, Sophie Hardcastle presents 2020 release Below Deck. With an impressive academic resume, I was keen to taste this critically acclaimed author’s work through her new release, Below Deck. I found Below Deck to be a pulsating and incandescent read that habituated my mind, long after the final page had been turned.
Olivia or ‘Oli’ is the lead protagonist of Below Deck. Oli is a complicated soul. We are inside her head for the duration of the novel, which is defined by moments of despair, confusion, connection, love, disappointment, ambition and fear. Being a part of Oli’s life for the length of this novel was quite tumultuous. There were many emotions swirling inside of me and I felt bruised by my experience of Below Deck. It was poignant and scalding.
Hardcastle draws on her own personal experiences of synesthesia, which is the ability to see colour form and shape when stimulated. Hardcastle weaves in this unique world view into her book. Through the characters of both Oli and Maggie, we learn more about the ability both these women have to see the world through a colourful lens. This altered world view from what the layman would experience, enables Hardcastle to inject plenty of vitality, imagery, rhythm and poetry into her writing. I enjoyed the rolling pace of this novel, as well as the defined prose, it was an unusual form of writing. There were times when moments in this novel were silenced, or presented as ambiguous, which did perplex me a little.
The format Below Deck takes is episodic and the narrative diverts somewhat from a neat array. Rather, the reader is submerged in various pivotal moments of Oli’s life. Segregated into four parts, which are signposted as Sea Garden, Sea Monsters, Desert and Ice, the accompanying chapters within these segments are descriptively in tune with various colour tones. Travelling through moments of relationship breakdown, fateful connections, semblance, achievement, desire, despair, helplessness, silence, hurt, pain, love, confusion and recovery, there is a great deal thrust at the reader. I do need to issue a trigger warning for those who may find sexual assault sequences hard to approach. However, Hardcastle does draw out these aspects of the book with sensitivity.
With a latent focus on the environment, the ocean and climate change, which offsets Oli’s personal odyssey, Below Deck works as a literary voice for a number of resounding issues. It is a solemn at times, but it is also a considerate novel, that offers a heartbreaking insight into the impact of trauma and imposed silence.
Below Deck by Sophie Hardcastle was published on 3rd March 2020 by Allen & Unwin. Details on how to purchase the book can be found here.
To learn more about the author of Below Deck, Sophie Hardcastle, visit here.
*Thanks extended to Allen & Unwin for providing a free copy of this book for review purposes.
Below Deck is book #45 of the 2020 Australian Women Writers Challenge