The Secrets at Ocean’s Edge by Kali Napier

‘People were different in different places.’

In 1932, Australia is in the grip of the Great Depression. Ernie and Lily Hass and their daughter Girlie have lost almost everything. They pack their remaining belongings onto a cart behind their horse Brownie and abandon their failing wheat farm in Perenjori for the West Australian coast at Dongarra. Ernie has a plan for a new start: a summer guest house by the coast. The Hasses quickly find that it isn’t easy to make a new start: Ernie’s plans upset some of the locals, while Lily cannot easily make friends with the ‘better class’ of women. And Girlie finds it hard to make friends in a place where every child has known every other child in the district from birth.

But it isn’t just the Hasses desire to fit into the local community which causes grief: each member of the family has secrets. Just as the Hasses seem to be making some headway, Lily’s shell-shocked brother Tommy appears. Ernie wants Tommy to move on, but Lily feels a sense of responsibility towards him even though his presence threatens to expose some carefully kept secrets.

‘Secrets weren’t fun to collect when they would hurt others.’

I found a lot to like about this finely crafted novel. The story unfolds through the different perspectives of the four main characters: Lily, Girlie, Tommy and Ernie. This enables the reader to see some of the same events from very different viewpoints which adds to the depth of the story as well as showing how easy it can be to misrepresent (and misinterpret). The detail of life in the Great Depression echoed the experiences my grandparents shared of the same period. In a small town everyone knows your business, and people are judged by the company they keep or where they are perceived to fit in. And the Hass family are not the only people carrying secrets.

‘There were too many secrets.’

Gradually, as Ms Napier reveals (some of) those secrets, the nature of 1930s small town society becomes even clearer: elements of generosity and kindness together with snobbery, racism and hypocrisy. All reinforced by the (largely unspoken but clearly understood) rules of ‘proper’ behaviour. Some of the secrets may seem comparatively trivial in the 21st century, but they were not during the first half of the 20th century. Ms Napier allows the tension to build as the reader tries to work out what truths are being concealed, from whom and why.

This is Ms Napier’s debut novel, and I highly recommend it as a fine example of Australian historical fiction.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith