No More Boats by Felicity Castagna

 

‘It is the day after Harold Holt disappeared and Antonio Martone is standing in his new home.’

This novel, which opens with the disappearance of Harold Hold and ends with the collapse of the Twin Towers, is focussed on Antonio Martone and his existential crisis in 2001.  Australia was dealing with its own existential crisis at the same time:  the Australian Government had refused permission for the Norwegian freighter MV Tampa to enter Australian waters.  The MV Tampa was carrying 438 people rescued from international waters: 5 crew members and 433 people (predominantly Hazaras from Afghanistan) seeking refuge.

Antonio Martone was once a migrant to Australia: he and his best friend Nico both arrived by boat as part of the wave of post-war migration from southern Europe.  Antonio went through the Villawood Migrant Camp (now the Villawood Detention Centre) and married an Australian volunteer (Rose) whom he’d met there. A proud patriarch, Antonio has built his home in Parramatta.  Antonio and Rose have a son Francis and a daughter Clare. Antonio has been forced to retire early after an horrific accident on a building site which injured him and killed his best friend Nico. And, suddenly, Antonio has lost his place.  His wife has become more independent, his son smokes weed, and his daughter seems to be involved with strange men.  What is the world coming to?

Meanwhile, television and radio scream out that Australia is being inundated by boat people.  The Prime Minister’s message is that ‘we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come’.  Antonio’s world is collapsing around him, and then the ghost of his dead friend tells him to paint ‘No More Boats’ in giant letters across his front yard.  Antonio is confused and he’s looking for answers.

This is a novel about confusion, about identity, about ordinariness, about both possession and dispossession.  Antonio identifies with those who believe there should be no more boats.  He takes a stand against boat people, embarrassing his family, attracting violent supporters.

Ms Castagna tells this story in short chapters with multiple points of view, mostly from Antonio, Rose, Francis and Clare.  Their perspectives are different, they are mostly embarrassed by Antonio.  They each have their own lives with different issues to deal with.

‘Do you know what his father did?’

Anti-boat arrival sentiment is strong in parts of Australia, so strong that it drives the policies of both major political parties.  It’s sadly ironic that most of us arrived by boat.  It’s also sadly ironic that we seem less concerned about those who arrive by plane (and then either overstay or seek asylum).  What is it about boat arrivals?

I first read this novel last year and then reread it when it was shortlisted for the 2018 Miles Franklin Award.  It’s not a novel to enjoy: it’s a novel that makes me think and some of that thinking makes me uncomfortable. How do we decide who belongs and why?  Why is difference so frightening? Are we so fragile in our own sense of self that we fear any difference?  I wish I could say that things have improved since August 2001, but I can’t.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

#AWW2018