Michael Joseph, an imprint of Penguin Random House, Australia, 2020
The cheery cover of this book belies its dark themes. Don’t for a minute imagine you are picking up a frothy beachside romance here. While there is love of all sorts, and indeed romance, in this story, there are also family and community secrets and lies, the sway of power and privilege and the inherent and deeply rooted racism of Australian society.
Sandie Docker skilfully wraps all of this in a story that holds us captive to the last page with the tantalizing unravelling of one big secret and its myriad offshoots.
This is the story of generations of women. Our main protagonist is Laura, an investigative journalist from the city. The death of her grandmother Lilian and the discovery of an old photograph are the catalysts for Laura’s expedition to Banksia Bay, determined to uncover the truth about events that took place between 1961 and 1964. Sensing the need for stealth, she use the cover story of producing a travel article to hide her intent.
She finds there a small tight-knit beachside community in the off season and a local surfing culture which borders on religious. Her efforts first to identify the people of the photograph and then fit them together into Lilian’s life and the stories she has been told meet with constant obfuscation and obstruction.
In coming to know some of the people of Banksia Bay, Laura also questions her own duplicity and agonises about whether telling her own truth will help uncover the secrets of the past, so well held through decades.
As this story switches from the sixties to the present, the author reminds us of the privilege endowed by power, wealth and position – both Lilian and her husband Richard come from that echelon. Virginia, her Banksia Bay annual summer holiday friend, and Yvonne, Virginia’s life-long friend, come from a distinctly other side of the tracks.
Thrown into this is the local power structure – the police officer and his son have the power and the bully’s heart needed to crush those less influential. And at the bottom of this heap is the Greek migrant family and the gentle Costas, whose dignity and acceptance of the way of the world are heart-breaking.
As I write this piece, it is Reconciliation Week in Australia and we are acutely aware of our systemic and deeply rooted racism as a society – indeed our very presence in this place testifies to a colonial history of the 18th century which lingers into our present. Waves of immigrants over decades have felt the resentment of the occupier to the ‘stranger’, the interloper, the foreigner – and this book is set in the era when waves of European migrants fled the devastations of WW11 in search of a better life, only to be called names and denied acceptance.
As one who was a teenager at the time of the historical past in this book, I find much that resonates in the beach and surfing threads of this tale. There was and continues to be a mystique around surfing well beyond the ken of those of us who splash about in the shallows and enjoy walking on the sand. Reluctantly, Laura agrees to surf lessons and after many failures she manages to catch some waves.
She also manages to catch on to what it is she is missing in her life. It is this union with nature and the unspoken, the irrational perhaps, that in the end allows Laura to find herself at home.
And all this in a beachside romance? I don’t think so. What a great read this is, the third of Sandie Docker’s novels, each taking small towns as their milieu. Having grown up in what was at the time a small coastal town, the author evokes this sense of place perfectly. She has written what she knows, and knew, and she convinces us utterly of this reality, this memory of a golden time that nevertheless had darkness at its core.
I’ll be searching out her back-catalogue and await with interest the new book due out in early 2021.