TREADING WATER by Angie Oakley
Review (1) by GERALDINE O’BRIEN (Formerly feature writer for Sydney Morning Herald, currently speech-writer for Clover Moore, Lord Mayor of Sydney)
Families: for good and ill they shape us. They can nurture us, damage us, infuriate us, and make us who we are. And families, of course, consist of parents as well as children – parents who struggle, worry and try to get it right.
Families are the lifeblood of this novel – two families in particular whose lives become entwined.
Their story takes us between England and Australia, between parents, children and siblings, friends and neighbours, between childhood, school and adulthood, and it plays out in the story of Paul and Lucy.
Theirs is a sweet and subtly told love story. But it takes place against a tapestry of family lore that is rich with acutely observed characters, background and incident.
A former teacher, Oakley is especially good in her depictions of her young characters. Paul’s schoolmate Mark, who is bullied by the others, hides away in the library and the woodwork room, hoping to escape notice, “but there’s no mistaking the loneliness in the stoop of his shoulders”.
She understands the angry boys, too, including Paul himself, who at 16, launches into his first romance (and first sexual experience), desperate to escape “the little cauldron of his family”. And she offers the most understandable explanation of self-harming behaviour that I’ve ever read.
If this makes Treading Water sound grim, it is not. It is rich and full of life and – being set largely in Brisbane and the coast near Noosa – it has a wonderful physicality that evokes the warmth, the sounds of a frogmouth owl, the beauty of the spreading trees, and of water, ever-present through this book in the bend of a river, in the ocean at Noosa or a in tropical downpour.
We will all find something we recognise in this book and it would be a hard-to-please reader who did not also find much to enjoy. Highly recommended.
Review (2) by David Cutler (Book blogger and reader for the Library of Congress Washington DC)
On a Baltic cruise a year or so ago, someone mentioned to me a blog by an Australian writer by the name of Angie Oakley, which is how I became acquainted with her writing. I found her blog at https://spryandretiring.wordpress.com/ and I visit it from time to time—greatly amused by her humorous pieces and impressed by her more thoughtful posts–for example about the celebration of Anzac Day.
“Treading Water” is, I believe, her first published novel, and I doubt that it will be her last. It certainly shows considerable skill in its deft handling of the inner lives of the principal characters–the boy, Paul, and the girl, Lucy, whose lives at school and their interactions with family and friends are developed with great sensitivity from 1981 to 1997. The main focus is on the period up to 1992, although the final four chapters, which are particularly well written, take us through to 1997, finishing on a hopeful note that Lucy has conquered her inner demons.
In 1981 Paul comes back to Australia from England, where his mother, Helene, has died in a road accident. His father, Jack, has married again–his wife is Mollie, an eminently sensible and practical woman–and they have a young daughter, Sophie. Paul is a teenager, and he is enrolled in a Roman Catholic private school, to which his family has connections. The emotional problems of his adolescence over the years are explored with sympathy and understanding. And Paul has an extended family, including a grandfather with whom he feels much more at ease than he does with his father, Jack. This extended family plays an important role in the development of the novel.
Lucy is the younger daughter of Sandy, who is introduced to the reader as the fashionable wife of the wealthy David, who suddenly leaves her to cope as a single mother with two daughters (Lucy has an older sister Phoebe), living in much reduced financial circumstances. One aspect of Lucy’s getting older is her friendship with an eighty-year-old neighbour, a veteran of WWI, with whom as a very small girl she chats on his veranda, pats his dog, and drinks cups of tea. I thought the first of these encounters was one of the most delicate pieces of writing in the novel.
And so, over the years, the actions and interactions of these various families–rivalries, likes and dislikes, jealousies, resentment, love—are skillfully worked out by the author, with the main focus on the inner lives of Paul and Lucy.