Past the shallows
By Favel Parrett
The novel begins as Miles and Joe surf while their younger brother, Harry, watches from the beach. The next day Harry does to a show in Hobart with the boys’ Aunty Jean. He buys showbags for Miles and his friend Stuart.
Meanwhile, Mile is out working on the boat with his Dad and the crewmen, Martin and Jeff. Upon returning home from Hobart, Harry goes to Stuart to give him the showbag, but Stuart is not home. On his return journey home, Harry encounters a dog, which leads him to the dilapidated house of an old man named George. Harry runs away in fright when he hears George calling his name.
Joe, the eldest of the brothers, lives alone on his houseboat, and picks Miles up to go surfing when Miles finishes work. It is revealed that Joe is working on his houseboat to make it seaworthy so that he can leave Tasmania.
When Miles goes to sea again for work, a shark jumps onto the boat, breaking Martin’s leg. Jeff shoots the shark, saving Miles, who was trapped underneath it. Jeff then cuts open the shark and shoots the lone living baby shark in its womb. Miles and his Dad take Martin to the hospital, and Miles recalls being there when his grandfather died.
Harry returns to George’s house to play with the dog, and George invites him in for tea. At the docks, the boat engine fails, and the Dad leaves Miles by himself to push it in manually. A Mr Roberts comes to Miles’ aid, and then gives him a lift home. On the way home, Miles takes notice of a spot of fresh lilies by the side of the road, and it is revealed that that is where the boys’ mother died in a car crash.
The boys go to their grandfather’s house, which has been sold by their Aunt Jean, to clear it out. They come across some of their mother’s possessions, including a tooth necklace, and discover parts of the car that she was driving when she died. On the way to the tip after leaving the house, Harry remembers that there was a man in the car with his mother the night of the crash.
On the beach, Miles fights with Gary Jones, a boy his age, because Gary took the shark tooth Miles got from the incident on the boat. In the course of the fight, Miles breaks a fishing rod belonging to Gary’s dad.
Harry goes fishing with George, and they catch a flathead, which they have for dinner. George takes Harry to his old home and reveals that he knew Harry’s mother when he was younger. Officers from the Department of Fisheries arrive at the home where Harry and Miles live with their Dad. The officers inform Miles that their Dad has many unpaid fines.
The next day, Miles and Joe go fishing, and Joe tells Miles that he plans to leave the next day, because he needs to escape his horrible existence in Tasmania. That night, while drinking at home the boys’ Dad, along with Jeff, forces Harry to drink, which causes him to vomit. Miles defends Harry, and their Dad hits him, causing his head to bleed. Miles and Harry run away to George’s place, where they are taken care of. Miles takes Harry to stay at Stuart’s house, before returning home to clean up the mess. His father is there eating fish and chips, and makes no mention of the previous night.
Wanting to repay George for his kindness, Harry buys him tea, but when he arrives at George’s house, he cannot find him. Miles and his Dad are driving home from fishing as Harry is leaving George’s house, and the car nearly hits Harry, enraging the Dad.
The next morning, the Dad orders Miles and Harry onto the boat, and Miles is terrified. The Dad and Jeff steer the boat into the middle of the water before turning off the engine. Overcome with fear, Miles begins to throw up off the side of the boat. The Dad and Jeff return to the deck of the boat.
The Dad attacks Miles, attempting to force his head into the water so that he will drown. Harry attacks Dad before calling for help on the radio. Dad grabs Harry, and upon noticing the white necklace he is wearing, becomes furious as he realises it belonged to the man who was in the car with his wife the night of the crash – the man his wife was having an affair with. He blames Harry for the whole situation, and when a wave hits the boat, Harry is thrown into the water. The Dad reveals his knowledge of the affair. He tells Miles that he took the man’s body out of the wreck so that no one would know, and that his reputation would be protected.
Miles jumps overboard to save Harry, and after grabbing him in the water he falls unconscious. He awakes to find that he is no longer holding on to his brother.
Miles wakes up in the hospital, and is informed that Harry has died. Miles recalls the night of his mother’s death, and realises that it was his Uncle Nick who was the man in the car. He remembers seeing his father take Nick’s body away and return without him.
At Harry’s funeral, Miles breaks down to Joe. The next day, Miles goes surfing with Justin, Mr Robert’s son. Later, Miles, Joe and George bury a shark egg on the beach in memory of Harry. George gives the shark necklace to Miles, who realises that George found Harry’s body. Miles and Joe leave.
Context and purpose
Parrett’s text is set on the rural Tasmanian coast in 1983. A sense of isolation and hardship permeates the text at every level, which is compounded by the unforgiving power of the sea.
By depicting the struggles of the boys, Parrett urges her audience to reflect on their relationships with their own families and the natural environment. She powerfully depicts the extent to which we as humans exist very much as a part of the natural world, not separately to it. Accordingly, our own trials and tribulations are intertwined with the world around us, and indeed are shaped by it. The central theme of Parrett’s text is how young men in particular respond to the trauma of growing up in a violently dysfunctional family.
Human Experiences Explored
Humanity's Connection to the Natural Environment
Throughout the text, the ocean is presented as being a magnetic, oppressive force. It entirely defines the boys’ experiences, and shapes how they imagine their world: there is the land on which they live, and there is the ocean, which surrounds them. In that way, the ocean becomes a metaphor for their father’s oppression, too: it engulfs them completely. Such is articulated in the vivid imagery “But ultimately it wasn’t up to you. This ocean could hold you down for as long as it liked, and Miles knew it.”
The description “The whole coastline had been changed” that appears after Harry’s death is imbued with symbolism, as with the absence of their father and death of their brother, the way in which the boys conceive of their world has been changed, too. Of course, the text’s final lines capture how as a result of the events of the plot, the boys now imagine the ocean as what it must be for them, if only to reconcile themselves to the brutal reality of their lives: a vehicle for escape.
The Vulnerability of Human Beings; the Difficulty of Growing Up in a Dysfunctional Family
At its core, Past the Shallows is an examination of the inherent fragility of human beings, with a particular focus on young men. The boys’ chief vulnerability is the power their father wields over them, which is in turn represented by the ocean as aforementioned. The boys are characterised as youthful but also wise beyond their years, as is captured in the metaphor of the abalone shell Harry picks up, which prompts a moment of metaphysical philosophising.
There is a sense of anguish for the boys, as we as the reader empathise with their hardship while thinking of all the opportunities for hope and happiness they are deprived of. The tension between seeking joy while recognising their vulnerability is expressed in the evocative imagery “Everything fell out of his mind. He could see it all now right in front of him, see the ridges, see the curves. See the colour of the water as it moved in the fading light. It was time to do something. Time to make something of his own.”
Unconditional Love Between Siblings
The boys’ awareness of their vulnerability informs the unconditional love they have for one another. Though Joe is more matured and older than his siblings, he still adopts a protective role where he can, despite being somewhat distracted by his own desire to escape. As such, it is between Miles and Harry where the unconditional love between siblings is most thoroughly displayed. Harry’s youthfulness is used to communicate the intense emotions involved in sibling relationships: “Harry leant his head aback against the chair and thought that if Miles got lost, if Miles never came home, Harry’s insides would go wrong and they might never come right again. If Miles got lost.” The graceful simplicity of the power of that emotion is then reflected in “But Harry had a way about him, a way that made you promise to take care of him.”
The Paradoxical Desire for Escapism and Connection
The tension between the desire to escape to a better life and to remain close to one’s connections is a significant driver of the plot. It is through Harry that we are first introduced to it, as he expresses jealousy that his friend Stuart gets to leave the town often – “It was better than hanging around here.” Miles too feels this tension, as he resents the work he is made to do, but does not know how to express it, and so remains silent. The motific story of the woman who escaped to an island by herself captures the paradoxical desire for escapism and connection: “’She may have just had enough of everything,’ said Harry. And Miles didn’t know whether he meant had enough of life before the island, or life on the island.” Parrett intentionally leaves the boys’ future at the end of the novel uncertain, as we are left to consider whether the tragedy that has most recently befallen them is what will finally make them leave, and start elsewhere anew.