Below Deck by Sophie Hardcastle

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Every once in a while, we come across a novel so impressive and so mesmerising, that we find it offers up our own sense of reflection, or an opportunity for us to consider the stories we ourselves would like to put out into the world. For me, Below Deck was just that. Throughout reading, I took breathers to simply sit with the words and the beauty of how the narrative was unfolding before me. Upon finishing, I was left with a fulfilling sense of purpose and something so entirely satisfying. I allowed this feeling to wash over me as I turned the final page.

Below Deck is a spectacular accomplishment from a skilled young writer. I was hooked into Oli’s story from the very first sentence and it was pleasure to journey with her on her personal growth as she navigated her twenties, overcame her trauma and attempted to establish some sort of meaning into her life.

In the novel, Hardcastle shows just how vital the collectiveness of those who identify as women, is, especially in helping to push Oli through her trauma and re-establish her self-worth. The book is full of admirable women to look up and aspire to, helping to lead Oli out of her own darkness.

Through her explorations into her uncovering how she occupies her own space as a woman, Oli discovers more about the important figures around her, having previously been dominated by male egotisms for much of her young life. Even the most unlikable female character – Oli’s distant and critical mother – is shown to have a softer, more nuanced personality as the novel progresses. Oli learns more about the lives that have shaped the women around her, many of which are typically older, and joins this band of sisters to help heal her wounds.

We also cannot ignore the other complex figure in Below Deck, something that dictates much of Oli’s existence. It helps to give her life, sends her into her deepest depressions, but does ultimately lift her out of all the bleakness: the ocean. Hardcastle’s own love and experiences with the sea come into full-force here. The delicate way in which she describes the endless nights at sea are breath-taking, the ocean wind tickling the readers’ skin as they continue with the voyage alongside Oli.

Despite the loveliness, there is also the deep rage that undercuts this bliss, for it is on the ocean that Oli experiences her most traumatic and damaging event. The water has been tainted by the men she is sailing with; scenes of them tipping oil overboard and defecating into the sea are obvious examples of this, yet their barbaric actions also turn the water into a tender scar for Oli.

This middle section of the novel is a tough yet pivotal read. The dirtiness of the place. The cramped conditions. The ugliness of everything that is happening around her. Hardcastle uses grotesque and visceral images to portray that rancid nature – fish guts, bodily fluids including blood (notably, period blood), wrecked cabins, and a cornucopia of smells fill these pages. The small boat is Oli’s – and the readers’ – very own hell on earth.

Despite Oli’s best efforts to tear herself away from the sea after this time, there is a deep connection to the ocean that continues to surface throughout the rest of the novel. We are taken back to those soothing times with Maggie and Mac, where she ultimately realised her true calling for a life on the water. Eventually, Oli can no longer resist the pull of the waves. She returns her mind and body to the sea, allowing it to heal her and help to manage her pain.

Hardcastle’s writing during these ocean sections, and indeed throughout much of the rest of the novel, really highlights her love for the beauty of the world around us. With Oli’s character battling mental illness from the start, she is portrayed as being truly ‘herself’ when she is surrounded by exquisite objects. She describes diving through the Australian reefs as walking through a literal art gallery, so it is therefore no surprise when her passions for art are later realised in her alternative profession. The way in which she analyses these creations is stunning, opening up another layer to uncovering how people process their emotions through various talents.

Adding to this, Hardcastle elevates this connection to the artistic world even further, as Oli has synaesthesia. Not only does this make for an interesting insight into Oli’s intense, considered personality, but it also allows Hardcastle’s own writing and metaphors to do more for the reader. Another layer is added to the descriptive elements of the book, mixing these senses. She carefully chooses which colour corresponds to which sound, feeling and experience. They go far beyond our simple primary colours, too; Hardcastle picks out wonderful shades of the world around Oli, giving a strong visual representation to the environment as she experiences it. What we are presented with is a soft and subtle rainbow world, all mixed with Oli’s happiness, pain and grief.

In many ways, Below Deck is a quiet and unassuming novel. Though it tackles some hard-hitting issues that are difficult to endure at times, the coming-of-age concept and journey to self-discovery and acceptance is nothing new. Yet, there is beauty in the simplicity of the idea of the narrative. The language transports us to those silent moments at sea, and crashes down on us when the waves are unforgiving and a deep, rage-filled, red. The story ebbs and flows, pulling us back and forth until, with Oli, we finally emerge from the water, complete and full of hope.

Below Deck is published by Allen & Unwin and is available here.

Sophie Hardcastle

Sophie Hardcastle was born in 1993. She is an author, artist, screenwriter and scholar. In 2018, she was a Provost’s Scholar in English Literature at Worcester College, at the University of Oxford, where she wrote Below Deck. In 2017, Sophie was an artist-in-residence with Chimu Adventures in Antarctica. Sophie is the author of the critically acclaimed Running Like China (2015) and Breathing Under Water (2016). She is the co-creator, co-writer and co-director of the online series Cloudy River.

Reviewed by Mariah Feria

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