A review of Below Deck by Sophie Hardcastle

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Below Deck
by Sophie Hardcastle
Allen & Unwin
ISBN: 9781760876388, March 2020, 296 pgs, Paperback

Sophie Hardcastle’s writing style is beautifully distinctive. There’s an inherent quiet that pervades the work, creating meaning on a deep, almost non-linguistic level. This is true for all of Hardcastle’s work, but particularly so in her latest novel, Below Deck. The story is told in first person narration by Olivia, or Oli, as she comes to be known, an introspective, deeply observant twenty-one year old with synethesia – in Oli’s case, she see in colour. The book is divided into four sections: “sea garden”, “sea monsters”, “desert”, and “sea ice”. Colour is woven throughout the book, reflecting Oli’s perceptions. In the first part, all of the chapters are flowers: there’s “sea rose”, “sea poppy”, “sea tulip”, etc. Sea rose is also the name of Mac’s ship, where Oli wakes after an unpleasant alcohol fuelled evening that she can’t really remember. Mac is a kind man “impossibly deep, like dark ocean. Inky stories twist in him like sea serpents in underwater caves” who has taken her on board to keep an eye on her after she was found passed out in the bathroom at the Cruising Yacht Club on Sydney Harbour. As memory returns, Oli remembers that she had been arguing with her obnoxious boyfriend Adam, a fellow Economics graduate, who had been pressuring her to accept a prestigious corporate internship. Oli  wanted to study art, but her father, the South East Asia head of an oil company based in Singapore, would only pay for an Economics degree.

Mac introduces Oli to his partner Maggie, a retired London art curator who experiences a similar form of synesthesia (Hardcastle also has synethesia), and the three of them begin a friendship that changes the course of Oli’s life. Below Deck is exquisitely written, in prose as poetic as it is light-handed: 

I’ve been to Beijing, a city stacked in to the sky. Bangkok, hot and heaving. New York, towering. Rome, ornate and opulent. Yet as I fix my snorkel to my face and dive beneath the surface, I realise no city I’ve ever seen compares to a city made of coral. It’s vastly intricate. Infinitely complex.  Schools of fish dark between swaying yellow seaweed, The seabed blooms like sea hibiscus. Starfish adorn rocks. Emperor angelfish glide through sun-lanced waters. I equalise my ears, swam deeper to where humphead wrasse move like gentle giants. (94)

As with all of Hardcastle’s books, the ocean figures strongly, in this case providing a somewhat spiritual backdrop that heals Oli, as she develops a sense of belonging and peace that she lacks on land. This changes in the “sea monster” section, when Oli takes a job on a boat as the only female.  The chapters in this section are titled around the parts of a fish: fish bone, fish eye, fish scales, fish guts.  The violent abuse she experiences one the ship is a mirror of society, and picks up some of the threads introduced in “sea garden”, such as the way Adam treats Oli (including blood after unwanted sex which Oli tries to normalise), the shame Oli feels about her body – “I look sick Like a seashell that’s had its flesh scooped out”, and the way she is treated by her unloving parents.  There is a clear progression from Oli’s father and boyfriend, who are parallels, to the men on the boat. As the head of an oil company, Oli’s father becomes a representative of one of the biggest climate polluters in the world, his corruption evident in an infidelity Oli remembers witnessing and supressing as a child:

But people don’t always choose to believe what they see. Or to believe what they hear. Instead, they simplify reality in order to survive it. (130)

The violence in this chapter is shocking, but like the less intense violence Oli experiences earlier, it is normalised and tamped down as the ship pulls into shore.

In the “desert” section Oli is a few years older, working in a London gallery curating an all-woman show.  Each of the chapters in this section are titled with sand colours: “pink sand”, “white sand”, “gold sand”. Oli’s dream of working with art is realised and she is able to find a more gentle kind of love, but her past is only buried, not healed, and it resurfaces.  The final section, “sea ice”, has chapters titled “cloud”, “snow”, “glacier”, “iceberg”.  This final chapter explores healing and potentially, rebirth, though the underlying violence cannot be undone, only worked through. The language in this final section is particularly sumptuous and rich, combining Oli’s trauma with a powerful awakening:

I yawn and my ears unblock. I love it when that happens: how you don’t realise your attention to the outer quality of the world is less until it is again more. Like heartache, the way it rips you open, expose you, makes you hypersensitive to the cold, to whispers, to light. (250)

This final chapter ties together the violence done to the earth through global warming, so obvious in the Antarctic Peninsula, with violence against women in general and Oli in particular.  This is not just the overt violence Oli experienced in the “sea monsters” chapter, but also Adam’s objectification of Oli, the self-objectification exhibited by Oli’s mother, and the commodification and destruction of the Earth as represented by Oli’s father. Oli’s rebirth is rooted in connection, where she feels herself a part of the ocean; a part of the Earth, and connected to the other women with her. It’s an antidote to violence and the kind of toxic masculinity that is destroying our species. Below Deck is a rich, powerful, and wonderful novel full of exquisite writing, important themes, and powerfully realised textures.