Kali Napier has based her debut novel, The Secrets at Ocean’s Edge, on her own family history, her experience as a native title anthropologist and characters she found in her research. I found the book a little slow to start but found myself wanting to find out what happens to this family and the community they live in.
It is set in the Depression and farmer Ernie leaves his property and moves with wife Lily and their ten-year-old daughter they call Girlie to Dongarra, a small town on the coast of Western Australia. With the little they have he sets up a guesthouse and shop by the beach, hoping to start again, financially and socially. The latter is particularly important to Lily who works at finding her way in with the right people – ‘forming the right kind of friendships became essential to protect against future betrayals’.
Lily’s brother Tommy turns up, much to Ernie’s chagrin. He had served in the first world war, and is damaged by it, reflecting the issues many men suffered from this experience.
As the book unfolds it becomes clear ‘every family had its secrets that bound them together’, that ‘secrets had a special kind of power’, and shows what they are all prepared to do to keep them from coming out, and have their pasts catch up with them.
Told from the perspectives of Ernie, Lily, Tommy and Girlie revealing their thoughts and fears, what they know, and how they react when the truths start unravelling, as they are all adept at keeping pretences and hiding who they really are, even young Girlie, who felt ‘she would drown in secrets’. The book goes back and forth in time uncovering the history and secrets they keep from each other.
The book addresses the issues between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people at that time with sensitivity. As Kalier Napier says ‘I am privileged to be able to find and tell my story. It cannot compare with the experiences of the many Indigenous Australians undertaking journeys back to family and country as they access oral histories and archival records that demonstrate the extent of government control over Indigenous people’s stolen country, stolen wages, and stolen children’, but she does address these issues well, exposing them to readers who may be less aware.
Racism is portrayed towards Aboriginal people as well as the Italian and Chinese men in the community, together with the sexism of that time, reflecting that period with authenticity and understanding. Napier hopes this is a book that will benefit her daughter. It should do so for a much broader audience.