Review by Lisa Walker
’They say every hero has to leave home, but what those first steps are like I’m yet to know,’ reads the first line of Jessie Cole’s second novel, Deeper Water. Jessie draws us at once into the distinct and unusual world of her protagonist, Mema. Already we can intuit that this is a novel about awakening.
Mema lives with her mother in an isolated valley in northern New South Wales – a place of green hills and flooding creeks. Home schooled and naive for her age, Mema has an almost pagan attachment to her land, to the creek that runs through it and the animals – native, feral and domestic – that it supports.
Men are always passing through Mema’s world; only the women stay. Her four brothers and various fathers are long since gone, swallowed up by the wider world. But when she rescues a stranger whose car has been washed off a bridge, just like that everything changes. Even though the stranger, Hamish, is the most ’passing through’ of men he captures Mema’s interest. A tentative longing builds for Hamish and what he represents – the outside world.
Despite the beauty of Mema’s creekside home, it is no rural idyll. Their local town has an ugly side and the ’knowns and the unknowns’ in Mema’s past form a darker undercurrent to the story. Mema’s relationship with Anja, a wild girl who grew up sleeping in a tree hollow, also adds tension. Threatened by the addition of Hamish to their tight friendship, Anja creates ripples that spread in unpredictable directions.
Like Jessie’s first book, Darkness on the Edge of Town, this novel is distinctive for its careful observations that bring us into Mema’s world. Mema listens to the chickens’ ’morning clucks’ and imagines her siblings’ fathers ’washed up like survivors of a shipwreck, lost and beaten by the waves’.
The writing is candid about the pain of first love and longing. But this is not only a story about sexual awakening; Deeper Water also explores environmental themes with a light-handed touch. Hamish, an environmental consultant, clashes with Mema over his views on cats and cane toads. Gender relationships are also questioned – when seeing Anja, Hamish comments on her beauty. But Anja is many things, Mema thinks, and beautiful is only one of them.
Deeper Water is a sensuous portrayal of what happens when innocent desire clashes with the hardened edges of the wider world. Mema will linger in your mind for some time after you close the pages.