BOOK REVIEW: From The Wreck by Jane Rawson

A unique take on a traditional science-fiction novel, From the Wreck showcases Rawson’s skill in all its glory. A tale of life, grief and loss, and overcoming something much bigger than yourself, the novel shifts perspectives perfectly and never loses its delicate momentum. It differs from the ocean-themed novels that readers may have come across before, offering something more insightful and slightly eerie, partly thanks to Rawson’s expert word choice and nuanced characters. Whatever you may take away from the novel, one thing is for certain: the story is not what it may originally seem, and will surely continue to be interpreted differently.

Admittedly, I thoroughly enjoy novels when upon finishing and turning that final page, you think ‘what have I just read?’ While some readers – perhaps rightly – wish their books to end definitively and offer them at least that slight comfort of completion, I take pleasure in being puzzled by a storyline, by changing my mind and coming to a differing conclusion every time I attempt to understand the novel once again.

From the Wreck certainly achieves this; when it first begun, I was reminded of a novel I read last year Kraken by China Mieville – the book cover alone is remarkably similar. Rawson chooses the mysteries of the deep as the main and driving character behind her novel, particularly, the extraordinary minds of the octopus and squid-like creatures. I must admit, I worried initially. While there is of course so much to be said about what humankind does not know/understand about these creatures – making them the perfect stars of many a creative writing project – I was taken back to Kraken, and the frankly ridiculous path the strong-starting novel took.

However as I progressed through the novel, Rawson put all my worries to bed. Was the creature even an octopus initially? I’m still not really sure, but that didn’t matter – it morphed into a variety of entities, including a birth-mark on young Henry’s back. George, Henry’s father, is still traumatised by and obsessed with his initial encounter with ‘Mark’, just one of its many names. This is a shipwreck story with a difference – little time is given to the wreck itself, yet the emotional impact manages to heavily occupy each page afterwards.

George is constantly being reminded of the ocean, of the terror of having to consume human flesh and gradually watching others around you drop away, sinking deep into the water. Throughout the novel, his mind is bought back the wreck that he somehow survived. Others put it down to God’s will or plain luck – an unexplained mystery that he should learn to cherish and appreciate. However, George is aware that it was something more powerful and beyond his existence, something that has stayed with him and moved onto to his family, as he has attempted to move on and live his life.

While George is fearful and sometimes even angry at ‘Mark’, his son Henry – the one inflicted with ‘Mark’ for much of the novel – is curious about the other thing that seems to occupy his thoughts. Bizarre images of him feeding it are depicted throughout the novel, and the reader shudders as Rawson describes the way the mark ripples along the boy’s skin. For in fact, the mark is also curious, learning from its surroundings, taking in the mannerisms of its human peers and wondering why it why made the leap, from the comfort of its ocean home, to this unsteady form. The relationship between Henry and ‘Mark’ is beautiful in a way; Henry cares for it, and it in turn teaches him, revealing to him images of a world that once was, and the gruesome horror that has continued to consume his poor father throughout his young life.

The novel weaves from perspective to perspective, making for an interesting and varied read. While not all are strong as each other (I’m not entirely convinced the length of Beatrice Gallwey’s chapters were entirely warranted), they each have their earned place in the book. The interjections from ‘Mark’, ominous and somewhat ghostly in their description, offer a valuable insight into the creature, which I believe the novel would have suffered from had they been omitted, as is often in the case in sci-fi novels with a mystery, undiscernible creature. Rawson shows that, despite George’s fearful manner, the mark is nothing to be scared of. In fact it is lonely, it is eager to explore, to connect with more of its type and finding ‘home’ in this ancient, yet increasingly unfamiliar, world. The switch between George and Henry show the differing responses to trauma and grief, and just how ‘Mark’ has inflicted both of their lives.

Rawson’s tale is original and well thought out – the pacing alone is something to be marvelled at. But it is the astonishing writing that makes me sing the praises of From the Wreck. This novel could have just relied on the interesting plot and the uniqueness of its characters, but it does not. It presents us with passages such as “Henry could feel a mountain of corpses shifting inside him, the wet bodies of a billion slaughtered creature and the headless swaggie tossed on top” and “He would live here, always, in a world rimmed with salt, his naked body chilled grey and swollen, his tongue cleaved forever to the roof of his mouth: the monstrous, undead kind of Carpenters Reef.” Rawson makes sure that we are never taken away from or even out of the sea. We constantly have that feeling and taste of salt, the coldness, the power of what lies beneath in the murkiness. It is spectacular when a writer not only manages to create a fully immersive environment, but when they also manage to use those same words to get a reader to look inwards and reflect, without letting those additions compromise the feel of the world: “…when this ocean floor is settled, when all of the fat is gone and the bigger of the things with teeth dispersed, when we’ve remembered that yes it is possible to be even lonelier than you are when you are feeding on wet, rotten fat with the cousins of some crazy lantern heads, then.”

From the Wreck was my first encounter with Jane Rawson, and I’m going to make sure that it is not my last. She reveals in her Note from the Author that this story is actually a lot closer to her heart than we initially suspect, yet after that revelation, the care and the beauty of each wonderfully crafted sentence is perhaps even more significant and understandable. From the Wreck leaves us questioning the grander scheme of things, and has us pondering what goes on in those other worldly minds which live so close to our own.

From The Wreck is published by Picador and is available here.

Jane Rawson

Jane Rawson is the author of A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists; a novella, Formaldehyde; and a non-fiction book,The Handbook: Surviving and Living with Climate Change. From the Wreck was the first novel to be nominated for both Australia’s Miles Franklin Literary Award and the Aurealis Award for Best Science Fiction Novel, which it won. Jane lives in Tasmania and works as a bureaucrat.

Reviewed by Mariah Feria

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