Past the Shallows is a memorable and moving Australian novel written by Favel Parrett. Parett has authentically evoked the teenage voices of three brothers: in particular, the engaging and vulnerable younger brother, Harry. The prose is often spare and understated as it captures the overwhelming sadness of the family’s situation in coming to terms with the loss of the mother in the tough environment in which they live and work. The novel explores many human experiences: loss, friendship, despair, tragedy, families and the challenges to communicate with the important people in one’s life. This novel reveals people whose lives have been impacted by secrets and irreparably damaged. There are also the ideas of living in small communities where there are few choices and life is difficult. Parrett knows the ocean in all its moods which is captured with precision and power in this novel echoing Tim Winton’s coastal landscapes. It is a joy to read and is compelling in its characters and insights.
For reluctant readers there is an audio version evocatively read by David Wenham who captures the brothers’ voices with touching realism. For students who prefer to read from a device, there is an electronic version of the novel. This also assists in highlighting key passages for future incorporation in students’ own work.
Before students have read the novel, create interest and engagement through the following activities.
1. Exploring the cover
Show students the four different Past the Shallows book covers linked below.
In analysing these different covers students could include responses to these questions:
- What do the visual image(s) suggest about the content of the text and the intended audience?
- What is the most eye-catching or appealing aspect of each cover?
- How is colour, perspective and positioning of subjects used to compose the image?
- Is there an explicit relationship between the images and the printed text?
- Which cover appeals most to you as a cover to encourage you to buy or borrow the book? Explain your choice.
2. Discussing cover comments
Everyone loves Harry. Everyone except his father.
This comment is located on this book cover version.
- How does this comment engage us in the story?
- What impact does this have on you before you have even started the book?
- What kind of story and characters do you anticipate?
Look at some of the other promotional comments:
- If you only read one book this year make sure it’s this one.
- Genuinely moving and full of heart.
- Her prose is as powerful as a rip.
Which one resonates with you the most/inspires you to read the novel?
3. Exploring the novel’s title
Discuss with students that sometimes the title of a novel gives the reader an immediate insight to the subject matter and at other times it is more subtle or evocative.
Students are to read these extracts from the interview transcript at the back of the book (p. 270) which elucidate some interesting aspects of the choice of Past the Shallows as the title.
What was the inspiration for Past the Shallows?
The south coast of Tasmania had a huge influence on me when I was young. It is isolated and wild – a place I will never forget. The story grew out of my memories and feeling for that place. It is a sad and beautiful place. An ancient place.
How did you come up with the title?
The title came from the first line of the book: ‘Out past the shallows, past the sandy-bottomed bays, comes the dark water – black and cold and roaring.’ It was actually my publishers’ brilliant idea. For a long time, I knew the book as Crack Wattle. I knew this title wasn’t quite right, but it did mean something to me. There is still a section in the book about crack wattle. Then, when they suggested changing it to Past the Shallows, I knew it was perfect straight away. I think it is a great title.
Now ask students:
- What do you expect the novel to be about with such a title?
- Explain how the phrase past the shallows can work at both a literal and a metaphorical level. From this phrase do you expect a story about:
- Surfing? Fishing? Swimming? Resilience? Comedy? Tragedy? Daring? Survival? Courage? Heroism? Conflict? Relationships? Going beyond boundaries? Other?
- Students may classify these suggestions as literal or metaphorical and then explain their choice of the type of story the title suggests and consider which suggestion/s may not be likely.
4. Reading the epigraph
Students need to know that an epigraph is a quotation that is placed at the beginning of a text. It usually has a link to the text or sets the mood. At the beginning of her story Parrett includes an epigraph from the French navigator Admiral Bruni D’Entrecasteaux:
It would be vain of me to attempt to describe my feelings when I beheld this lonely harbour lying at the world’s end, separated as it were from the rest of the universe – ’twas nature and nature in her wildest mood…
Admiral D’Entrecasteaux, 1792
This epigraph is about Tasmania where the novel is set.
- What mood and ideas is the novel promoting by foregrounding this quotation?
5. Reading the opening page
Out past the shallows, past the sandy-bottomed bays, comes the dark water – black and cold and roaring. Rolling out the invisible paths. The ancient paths to Bruny, or down south along the silent cliffs, the paths out deep to the bird islands that stand tall between nothing but water and sky.
Wherever rock comes out of deep water, wherever reef rises up, there is abalone. Black-lipped soft bodies protected by shell.
In groups, students discuss three features of this story which have been established in this opening page and share the discussion with the class. They can also consider:
- What questions do you have about the setting?
- What questions do you have about the subject of the novel?
6. Background to the novel and the author
- Who is Favel Parrett?
- Where is the story set?
- What are we looking for as we read the novel the first time?
Who is Favel Parrett?
Knowing something about the author is a valuable way of engaging students in a text especially when the author is still alive, young and this is her first novel.
- Favel Parrett was born on 18 May, 1974.
- She grew up in Tasmania and now lives in Victoria.
- She is Australian and a keen surfer.
- Past the Shallows is her first novel.
- Her novel was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award. This award is one of the most prestigious awards in Australia bequeathed by the Australian novelist, Miles Franklin. It has been won by authors like Tim Winton and Peter Carey. The winner receives $60,000.
- Being nominated for and winning awards is a testament that Past the Shallows has impressed the publishing industry e.g. it was the 2012 winner of the Newcomer of the Year, Australian Book Industry Awards (ABIA) and winner of the 2012 Dobbie Literary Award for new women writers.
Encourage students to read more about Favel Parrett. There is an interesting and accessible interview with her in the back of the book. They can also read the Sydney Morning Herald article.
- After reading this article write a 250-word reflection opening with: Reading this article has given me new insights into/about …
Where is the story set?
The setting for any story is a significant part of the text’s meaning. While it is not definite when this novel is set there are hints and the mood of the 1980s but the geographical setting is very clear and indeed, a significant element of the novel’s distinctiveness and appeal. Parrett knows this area of Australia and Tasmania which gives the novel much of its authenticity and realism.
Most importantly, the role of water – both the ocean and the rivers – is a compelling element of the setting and engenders much of the text’s dark power.
The epigraph at the beginning of the story comes from the explorer D’Entrecasteaux whose name has been given to the channel of water between the south-east of the Tasmanian mainland and Bruny Island. Bruny Island – and its Southern end in particular – is a wild and untamed area which attracts tourists for these features. Its pristine waters are well known for growing mussels, scallops and abalone. So, geographically this novel is set in the isolated and rugged south coast of Tasmania. The weather is often changeable, unrelenting in its cold and bleakness and is home to small towns and settlements where the people depend on the fishing industry for their livelihood. Swimming and surfing are challenging because of the weather and the temperature of the water.
The novel actually opens at Cloudy Bay which is a beach break exposed to the Southern Ocean on Bruny Island and one of Australia’s most southern surfing beaches. Surfing sites warn about the water temperature, rips and sharks but applaud the lack of crowds and the excellent surfing conditions during a northerly wind. Students who are interested in surfing will enjoy this article.
Students can search online for maps of the South Eastern corner of Tasmania, including areas such as South Bruny Island, Cloudy Bay, Lune River, Dover, Southport, D’Entrecasteaux Channel and Hobart. This will assist them in locating some of the key locations mentioned in the novel.
Socially and culturally the novel focuses on the small, coastal settlements where the main work is associated with the fishing industry and specifically, abalone harvesting. While the final abalone meat is a delicacy and is very expensive, it is difficult work and the financial rewards can be limited. This is a culture represented by white, essentially Anglo-Saxon and conservative values where life is difficult and making a living is often precarious. This is the life of the Curren family.
It is valuable for students to have some insights into abalone diving. You might have some students who have dived for abalone and could share their experiences. They could view Abalone Diving Tasmania on YouTube.
What are we looking for as we read the novel the first time?
Students can be encouraged to insert sticky notes or if reading an electronic version of the text, to highlight as they read. Some students may prefer to keep a reading journal to respond to these questions. After a few days’ reading, these questions could become part of the class discussion and groups could be allocated one question each to discuss. This could become their area of expertise as the novel unfolds.
Alert students to be aware of these features in the novel:
- How Parrett evokes the bleak and unforgiving coastal landscape.
- The role of water both as the ocean and river.
- Insights into the three brothers: Joe, Miles, Harry.
- The role of their aunt, Jean.
- The impact of the death of their grandfather.
- Other areas of Tasmania the boys visit: you may notice that there are few so the novel’s power can be attributed to this unity of setting.
- The characterisation of the father and his fishing mate, Jeff.
- The character of George Fuller and his friendship with Harry.
- How the secret is revealed.
- Values and culture as represented by Steve Curren and his friend Jeff.
Student journal writing task
Students will compose a reading reflection when they reach each of the three points of the novel, indicated below, using the reflection questions beneath as a starting point.
- Page 21 – Harry decided not to tell Aunty Jean about the donuts and lemonade.
- Page 138 – The departure of Joe.
- Page 251 – The ending:
Out past the shallows, past the sandy-bottomed bays, comes the dark water – black and cold and roaring. Rolling out the invisible path, a new line for them to follow.
To somewhere warm.
To somewhere new.
Journal reflection questions:
- Are you enjoying the novel?
- What questions do you have at this stage of your reading?
- Which character speaks to you most intimately?
- Is Parrett succeeding in inviting you into this world? In what ways is this happening or not?
- How do you feel about and respond to the novel at the end?
The key elements of the text
In exploration the novel it is important to consider the language features which Favel Parrett has deliberately chosen to position the reader to consider her ideas and insights about humanity and life.
What is established in the opening paragraph?
The novel’s opening pages set up the mood that will follow. The language choices (literary elements) made by Parrett may be about the sea but they invite the reader into the world of the brothers, their family and their place.
Students may annotate the opening identifying features of language. If using an electronic version, students can copy and paste this paragraph into a Word document and use the Insert comment tool to annotate. Students are to consider the use of strong yet simple word choices and the power of the adjectives.
The words in bold below contribute to the creation of meaning in this evocative opening:
Out past the shallows, past the sandy-bottomed bays, comes the dark water –black and cold and roaring. Rolling out the invisible paths. The ancient paths to Bruny, or down south along the silent cliffs, the paths out deep to the bird islands that stand tall between nothing but water and sky.
Wherever rock comes out of deep water, wherever reef rises up, there is abalone. Black-lipped soft bodies protected by shell.
Ask students to:
- Choose two examples from the bolded words and discuss their effectiveness.
- Which words have been repeated? Why do you think these words are important enough to repeat?
- Discuss these examples of contrast:
- shallows and dark
- roaring and silent
- rock and water
- soft bodies protected by shell.
Why do you think Parrett so early in the novel establishes these contrasts? What insights do they give us to the paradoxes and anomalies of life?
If we consider this passage metaphorically as reflecting an aspect of human experience, what experiences might this be about and what might the passage be suggesting about the experience?
Parrett uses elements of the opening to conclude her novel; consider in what ways it is different:
Out past the shallows, past the sandy-bottomed bays, comes the dark water – black and cold and roaring. Rolling out the invisible path, a new line for them to follow.
To somewhere warm.
To somewhere new.
Parrett says she did not have a clear structure for her book but wrote in episodes. However, the opening and beginning echo each other and create a bookend effect, sometimes also known as framing or a circular plot as the story returns to where it started, but the slight differences in the ending imply that all has not stayed the same. Students can look up the following words and terms relevant to novel structure and decide which apply to the novel:
Even linear narratives do not go in a straight line but rise and fall as the story develops. After reading the novel, students can work in groups to create a mind-map which plots the key points in the novel’s chronology. They should mark the chapter and find images of Cloudy Bay, the sea or interiors that reflect the atmosphere of the events they identify, and add these to their map. They can also apply these words as they become relevant:
- rising action
- falling action
You may need to discuss with students what actually happened in the incident. Is this operating as flashback or backstory?
When the plot map is complete, students will have created a frieze through which they can make judgements about:
- the relationship between events and the regaining of Miles’ memory
- the relationships between events, mood and atmosphere in the novel.
This can also be the basis of later explorations of character and setting.
Groups can then discuss which experiences link to high points of intensity and emotion and indicate on their map. One member of each group is to present the group’s decision as to the three most intense events/episodes in the novel, justifying why they have chosen these examples.
Exploring the characters
Consider this definition of character from English Textual Concepts
Character is traditionally viewed as a description of a fictional person. As a construct, it is made up of verbal or visual statements about what that fictional person does, says and thinks and what other fictional characters and the author of the text say about him or her. The reader, listener or viewer fleshes out these statements to imagine a person-like character, sufficiently individualised and coherent to establish the sense of an identity. In this way, representation of a ‘real’ person invites personal identification and judgements about the character’s morality and value to their society. This kind of analysis can contribute to shaping one’s own sense of a moral and ethical self and so becoming a way of enculturation.
Characters may also be created and/or read as representations of ideas, of groups of people or of types that serve a function in a narrative genre. Questions of characterisation then focus on the ways a character is constructed both by the responder and the composer and its function in the text.
By the time they begin to study English and Literature at senior levels, students should be able to go beyond the discussion of characters as real people and start to understand characters as representations. The definition moves from the idea of character to characterisation as in this diagram (PDF, 137KB).
- In what way are the characters in the novel ‘person-like’ and believable?
- What are the moral values of each character?
- What ideas about society does each character represent?
The character as a narrative function is perhaps the most difficult idea about characters. However, the way we understand the narrative is usually driven by and through the characters:
- At the simplest level we can ask: who is central to the novel as a protagonist or antagonist?
- Who is the character who controls what we see and how we feel? In other words, from whose point of view do we see the action? Does this point of view change?
- Does the narrative depend on this character or are they a support or contrast (foil)?
Students should apply these questions to Past the Shallows.
Point of view is interesting as it can move between characters. This book is written in the third person; it is an omniscient (all-knowing) third person narration. Omniscient third person narrations are useful because even though they are not from one character’s perspective, they can direct readers from one character to another by changing point of view and letting us see into the minds of each character. These different characters become focalisers who make us focus on different perspectives through their individual points of view. We can sense how different characters are thinking, and can imagine the way they see the world. We can hear them talking in their minds as they encounter different things and react.
Look at the following passages and explain who is the focaliser and how the words create this point of view.
Harry led them straight to the rides.
He wanted to take his time, look at them all because he knew he would only be allowed to go on one. Some of the rides looked scary and some looked boring, like the merry-go-round. The Gee-Whizzer looked the best, but he needed Miles here to go on it with him. If he went by himself he would slide along the seat every time the ride spun in a new direction. There was no way he could get Aunty Jean on the Gee-Whizzer. Maybe she’d go on the ferris wheel. (p. 13)
He [Miles] stood next to Harry and looked over the side – searched the moving water for bubbles of air. Cold trickles of sweat ran down his back and he thought maybe he should just run. Get the hell off the boat and swim for the island, because if Dad and Jeff made it alive, then he was dead. But he knew he wouldn’t make it, not with Harry. The current was too strong. If the boat wasn’t anchored it would be pulled along like it was just a stick on the river. (p. 206)
Find an example of another passage and explain how the author develops the point of view.
Characters through objects
In Past the Shallows Parrett creates engaging, compelling and often troubled characters who are at the same time very real. They are valuable vehicles for Parrett’s perspectives on the complexities of the human experience. The adolescent voices are authentic and the adult voices reveal flawed and complex humans who evoke a range of emotions in the reader.
In various interviews Parrett talks about how attached she became to the three brothers and in fact, she collected items which she thought ‘belonged’ to each boy and arranged them on her writing desk.
- View the interview with Favel at the Sydney Writers’ Festival.
- Decide what items they would choose to belong to each character.
- Explain why they chose these objects.
Students can draw a family tree as they encounter the family members in the text.
In the transcript of an interview in the back of the book (p. 264) the interviewer asks a very clever question:
Which character spoke the loudest to you? Did any of them clamour to be heard over the others?
to which Parrett responded:
I love Harry very much. Sometimes it still makes me cry when I think about him. He is a very special character to me – some kind of gift really. Although Harry is not totally based on my brother, the way I feel about my brother is there in the writing. One of the worst things that could have happened to me when I was a child would have been losing my brother. We are very close.
How does Parrett position the reader to engage with Harry?
Explore these incidents with the class and discuss what each incident tells us about Harry:
- Hobart Regatta
- Having his hair cut
- Playing with George’s dog.
What other incidents are important for our understanding of Harry?
How do we respond to Harry’s death?
Miles and Harry have a strong bond: is this enough to justify Miles remaining at home (unlike Joe) to suffer the humiliation and violence from his father?
- How does Miles interact with the ocean compared to his brothers?
Students explore these comments from Miles’s point of view:
- Miles knew the water. He could feel it. Sand he knew not to trust it.
- Miles had only been down once, but that was enough. He’d been scared of the darkness and of the kelp wrapping around his legs. He’d been scared of the heavy feeling in his chest. And it made his head buzz like crazy, the pressure. The weight of all that water.
- In a few years he would have to dive down there for real.
Joe had moved out when he was thirteen, leaving Miles and Harry to survive with their father and ultimately Joe leaves them. Only Joe seems to grasp at something beyond the small town where they live.
- Is Joe being irresponsible and reneging on his sibling responsibility or should he do this for his own survival?
- Why is Joe’s point of view absent in the narrative?
Jean embodies that human paradox of being in pain but not able to articulate this feeling. On the surface Jean appears as hard and difficult, but she does want to help the brothers. Parrett effectively evokes these features of Jean:
- She is the only female role model the boys have left.
- She grieves for her sister and sees so much of her in Harry.
- She loves and protects Harry but cannot be gentle or tender with him.
When the boys have lunch with Jean (pp. 83–88), the reader gains a powerful insight into the character of Jean:
- She is strict, difficult, demands certain standards, has high expectations of the boys.
- There are secrets about the family tension and Miles finds baby things in the cupboard so there is another secret: He just kept thinking about the little blankets and the baby clothes and how all that stuff was perfect and clean and never used.
If using an ebook, do a word search for the sections where Jean features:
- What is her role in the family, the story, the key ideas of the novel?
- Why is there a general lack of women in this novel, even though the boys’ mother has a palpable presence?
Jeff is characterised by cruel, vindictive and bullying behaviour. There are a number of incidents that reveal this behaviour:
- staring menacingly
- shooting the shark
- forcing Harry to drink alcohol
- his overall enjoyment at seeing the boys uncomfortable.
Explain how the language in the extracts below positions the reader to consider Jeff.
- The shark hadn’t hurt him – not even a scratch.
- She lay on her side, her blue skin already turning grey, and Miles felt sick as he watched Jeff slice through her white underbelly with ease. Her stomach and insides slid through blood onto the deck.
- She was pregnant.
- Jeff hacked into the full womb and three pups spilled out; two dead and half eaten, the other trying to swim in its mother’s blood against the hard surface of the deck, tiny gills stretched open, black eyes searching. Jeff bent over and stabbed it through the head, grinning as its body came up on the long knife, still fighting. He chucked it at Miles and laughed as he wiped blood off his face.
- Miles caught the baby in his arms. It was dead now, black eyes fixed.
- It was fully formed, more than half a metre long, maybe only days away from being born. It would have survived if Jeff had just let it go, let it slide off the back of the boat. It had made it this far, battling its siblings, killing and feeding off them. Waiting. It would have been born strong, ready to hunt, ready to fight.
The Curren family is dominated by the father and his behaviour. Steven Curren epitomises the human paradoxes that are often found in families. As the only parent of Joe, Miles and Harry he is the carer and the provider but his cruelty, personal demons and behaviour create tension and conflict within the family and impact on the daily lives of his sons. Interestingly, we only read his name once when officials from the Fisheries Department visit their home. The lack of such personal reference reinforces the coldness of this man. At the centre of his behaviour is the grief, bitterness and pain involved in the death of his wife and the family secrets of what happened on that fateful night.
- What motivates Steven Curren in his behaviour?
- How does his grief, loss, guilt and the inability to communicate shape the way he responds to his sons and the world around him?
George Fuller is reminiscent of the marginalised characters who have appeared in novels like Jasper Jones and To Kill a Mockingbird. Despite this early characterisation as someone to be feared, he is both caring and kind to Harry and the only person that Harry and Miles can actually turn to for help.
- What is George’s role in the story and his contribution to the themes and ideas of the novel?
Group work on the characters
Divide the class into small groups and each group selects a character: Harry, Joe, Miles, Dad, Aunty Jean, George, or Jeff.
Using a Word document which can later be shared on Google Drive or a similar system, groups should document their responses for their character. Groups should present their findings both in written form and as a presentation to the class. The presentation could take the form of a PowerPoint or Prezi or a panel discussion.
- How is your character described?
- What do other characters say about your character?
- What is revealed about your character from what the character him/herself says?
- Describe your character’s behaviour.
- What motivates your character?
- What does he/she care about?
- Track your character through the story: outline in dot points their experiences, challenges, difficulties. Does your character have a character arc (become transformed through an inner journal by the end)?
- Analyse the relationship each character has with: sea, landscape, each brother, father, other people, self.
- What does each character represent in the collective human experiences of the novel?
- If you were to make a film of Past the Shallows, who would you cast as your character? Find a photograph of the person to include in your presentation.
Task: Character analysis
After the group presentations and using shared class notes, students choose one of these questions to explore two characters in a sustained critical response of about 800 words.
- How does Parrett’s portrayal of the relationship between her characters and their world move us to a deeper understanding of the human experience? In your response, make detailed reference to two characters in Past the Shallows.
- Past the Shallows is shaped by the decisions of significant characters. Select TWO significant characters and explore the impact of their choices and actions.
- Analyse the ways two characters in Past the Shallows interact with each other and the landscape around them. In your response, make detailed reference to two characters in Past the Shallows.
The sea as a metaphor and a character
The sea can almost be seen as another character and indeed is a strident metaphor for the complexity of the boys’ lives.
In the transcript of the interview (p. 265) the interviewer, Tanya Caunce poses this question to Parrett:
The ocean and its guises feature heavily in the book, like a character of its own. What is your connection with the ocean?
To which Parrett responds:
You are right. The ocean is a character of its own. I am in love with the Southern Ocean. I know that surfing changed my life. I’m thirty-six and I still love it. It connected me to the natural world, made me aware of tides and winds and the subtle changes that happen every minute of every day. I couldn’t have written this book if I did not surf. And I know I am grumpy and hopeless if I go for more than a week without getting in the water. My favourite time to surf is at dawn, watching the sun come up over Torquay and illuminate the cliffs and sand with the new day.
Discuss with students what elements of Parrett’s response resonate with their own interaction with the ocean or rivers.
In discussion with the class about the role and purpose of the ocean in Past the Shallows, these points could be explored:
- The ocean both provides the family their livelihood but takes the life of their beloved Harry.
- Miles and Joe love surfing – for them, it’s an escape from their real lives.
- Joe is even planning on sailing to the South Pacific.
- Parrett shows us just how fickle the ocean can be, and reminds us that we have absolutely no control over it.
- Harry fears the water and Miles both loves and hates it.
- Miles seems particularly aware of this danger.
- Each time Miles goes out on the boat, something seems to go wrong.
- Harry is not allowed on the boat, because he gets seasick before they even leave the jetty.
- The climactic scene, on the boat in the storm, is both page-turning and harrowing.
- The ocean has been a symbol of the inner turmoil of this family and now, with a huge storm from the south approaching, this turmoil spills over into the real world.
- As their father attacks the two sons in his anger, Harry takes more and more of the brunt, forcing Miles to protect his younger brother. Unsurprisingly, the two end up in the water waiting to die.
- Miles is unable to save his younger brother.
- Miles finds out that Harry is dead; it is an intense moment for the reader
It would be interesting to take the idea further and to discuss with students how the ocean serves different functions which echoes a long tradition in the Australian narrative with the ambiguities of the wider Australian fascination with water and indeed, the ocean. Parrett is now part of this broader Australian literary heritage often represented in the writings of Tim Winton and Robert Drewe.
While the ocean in all its mood is the dominant water image in the novel there is also a powerful reference to Lune River in south-eastern Tasmania which enters the sea and connects to Bruny Island.
Direct students to locate this description by Harry of Lune River on page 37:
He walked onto the bridge and leant against the railings on one side. The dark water of Lune River was moving with a silent speed that made the hairs on the back of his neck stand up. He picked up a rock and dropped it over the edge. It disappeared instantly into the rushing water and didn’t even leave a mark on the surface. You would need a million rocks to make a dent.
- How does Parrett position the reader to think about this other example of water?
Students work in groups to find three passages in the novel which demonstrate the fierce contrasts within the ocean. Share this example from pages 44–45 which captures Miles surfing:
The cold water bit at his hands and feet as he began the paddle. Winter brought massive swells, awesome to watch and not much fun to be in, but today the bluff was still like liquid mercury. Near perfect three-foot lines. The paddle was easy. The waves were easy. The ocean was at peace.
In their analysis of each extract, groups should indicate the context of the extract, annotate the language features and include a short explanation of what that extract reveals about the role of the ocean in Past the Shallows. For each extract students could find an image which captures the mood of the ocean as evoked by Parrett. Publish the group research to enable all students to have a full set of extracts.
Ideas in Past the Shallows
By this stage of the novel’s exploration many of the key ideas of the novel have been revealed. Direct students to re-form their groups and issue them with sheet of A3 paper. Give groups three minutes to list as many ideas as possible that have been explored in Past the Shallows. Post the papers around the room for all groups to read. Direct a student to highlight the ideas which are repeated from different groups.
Consider these ideas if they have not already been suggested by students:
- the long-term effects of grief and loss
- the impact of past events on human’s ability to move forward or not
- the failure of communication and its effects
- interacting with nature and the landscape can be challenging
- human truths: love, compassion, understanding, fear, loss, anger
- the devastating impact of secrecy.
A. Writing about setting
Task 1: An article
Adopt the persona of Miles Curren. You have been asked by a publishing consortium to write an article of 800 words on the challenges and delights of surfing in South East Tasmania. The article will be offered to a range of publications: surfing magazines, weekend travel newspaper lift-outs, online travel posts.
Students can use the article Southern Breaks as a model, or go online and research surfing in Southern Tasmania at spots such as Cloudy Bay, Southport and South Cape Bay.
The article should incorporate specific references from the novel where Miles is surfing and his responses to the ocean in its many moods. Include three to five images of the area around Bruny Island (make sure to use Creative commons’ licensed images so to not infringe copyright restrictions by) with captions which could accompany the article. Format the article with an engaging title, a by-line as the journalist, and consider including a map of the area.
Task 2: A description
In the transcript of an interview with Parrett (p. 264) she is asked about the inspiration for this book. She answers:
The south coast of Tasmania had a huge influence on me when I was young. It is isolated and wild – a place I will never forget. The story grew out of my memories and feeling for that pace. It is a sad and beautiful place. An ancient place.
Students are to think of a place which is special to them and has influenced the way they see themselves or others or the broader world. They can use Parrett’s words as a starter for their own paragraph; they then add their own words to replace the blanks in the following sentence. They should use the spare prose-style of Parrett to capture the intensity of the place for them. The writing should be about 600 words.
The _______ of _______ had a huge influence on me when I was young. It is _____ and _______ – a place I will never forget. The story grew out of my memories and feeling for that place. It is a _____and ______place. An _______ place. (Students continue on from here.)
Task 3: Journal writing using images
Students choose one or two of the images (PDF, 287KB) which capture south-eastern Tasmania. They take on the persona of Joe, Miles or their father and choose an experience from the novel. They write 3–5 journal entries of between 150 and 180 words, each focusing on the landscape and the experience of your character in that landscape. The journal entries should span events before, during and after the novel.
Task 4: Create a PowerPoint with recording
Students choose five to eight passages from the novel which evoke the ocean landscape. For each extract they find images (again observing correct copyright procedure) which best suit the extract and copy these into a PowerPoint of one slide per extract and image.
They record themselves reading the extract and include a minute of analysis for each extract of how this extract is used by Parrett to position the reader to the complexities of the human experience in such a challenging landscape. Students may consider including some music to suit some or all of the extracts and images.
B. Writing a review
In the book on page 258 students may read the ‘Review Raves’. They should think about what is focused on in each review. They can list all the adjectives and what they relate to. Are the comments about character, theme, plot, setting, style or other?
They can then write their own 800-word review using their list of adjectives and adding their own. The review of the novel is to be published for Australian senior high school students. They may choose to affirm or challenge the perspectives in the ‘Review Raves’ and will need to include detailed textual evidence to substantiate any perspective.
Synthesising task: Reflection
Students will work in groups to share ideas and then complete a reflection on their group-sharing by responding to these questions and statement:
- How valuable was this discussion, panel and listening activity in synthesising your insights and ideas about Past the Shallows?
- Reflect on what made some panel discussions more effective than others. Did you find this task a valuable learning experience?
They can use Mentimeter or similar interactive software where students use their mobile phones to text responses which are then visible on a screen to display student responses on whiteboard. (Mentimeter users create presentations, share their opinions and acquire feedback from their audience in real-time using mobile devices.) Where this is not feasible, a class blog, using Google Docs can be helpful.
Begin with an open discussion:
- What stands out in your reading of Past the Shallows?
- What are the distinctive features of this novel?
Students move into groups and each group explores one of the ideas listed below. Over two to three lessons, groups discuss their topics/ideas with close reference to specific textual evidence and prepare a panel discussion involving three members of their group to present to the rest of the class. Allocate two panel discussions per lesson.
At the end of each panel discussion all students are to capture three key points of the panel discussion as their own notes. Encourage the students to listen and observe the panel discussion rather than make notes during it and then to reflect on what ideas were stimulating for them. Students then pass their notes to the person on their right to add another point, then their person on their left to add a fifth point. At the end of the final panel discussion students are required to write their own reflection.
Areas for group exploration and panel discussion:
In what ways does Past the Shallows explore:
- The wide range of individual and collective human experiences – loss, families, secrets, a bitter and difficult father, friendship, tragedy, lack of communication, small towns.
- The anomalies of family behaviour – paternal role and control, the relationship of the father and his sons, Aunt Jean and the boys, family tension, hate, resentment, bitterness, pain, fear, love, duality of the sea.
- A way to see the world differently – a family under pressure and the resilience of the young boys.
- The effectiveness of storytelling and the demonstration of how authentic and gripping stories engage us to consider what life is like for others and in different places
- The use of language to reflect and shape the characters and their interaction with each other, including the physicality of the ever-present ocean. Consider Parrett’s prose: powerful, sparse, understated, deceptively simple, sometimes violent and yet life-affirming.
Ways of reading the text
Texts are not created in vacuum. Authors are conscious of a world of textuality from their own reading and the texts they read build on others. We can therefore see Past the Shallows as being part of a much bigger picture – part of a wider world of texts that draw on the sea for their imagery and for their meaning. Drawing students’ attention to the ways the sea has been represented through different texts makes them aware of the interconnectedness of texts for imparting meaning, with every new text building on the texts that have come before.
The sea is a powerful motif and often represents the experience of human struggle. The struggle is often physical with humans – usually males – fighting the elements of the sea and either conquering or losing the struggle. What follows is usually an emotional awakening, as the characters involved come to understand something within themselves or about their relationship with the world. Many myths and legends especially from island states centre on the sea because it is also such an important source of food. Canonical texts where the sea is a central character include:
- the American novels: Moby Dick (Herman Melville, 1851), The Old Man and The Sea (Ernest Hemingway, 1952).
- the English poem: The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (Samuel Taylor Coleridge,1834).
- the Australian novel: For the Term of his Natural Life (Marcus Clarke, 1872 – also a Reading Australia text and teaching resource).
- the Norwegian non-fiction text: The Kon Tiki Expedition (Heyerdal, 1948).
The sea is not just a setting or backdrop: it creates a space for discovery, connecting different places but also connecting with the mind. The sea also has a spiritual connection through the Bible with Jesus’ disciples as fishermen who depended on the sea for their sustenance. More recent Australian writers, especially Tim Winton, have also used the sea as an essential part of their texts. Indeed Favel Parrett’s second novel, When the Night Comes (Hachette, 2014) again uses the sea and the Southern Ocean as a powerful creative force in her work.
- How much does Favel Parrett’s book draw from past traditions of the sea in literature? You may read extracts from other books (PDF, 152KB) to answer this question.
- How does Parrett demonstrate the difficulty of survival through the motif of the sea?
Applying a feminist reading
Feminist literary scholarship makes us aware of aspects of the text we may not have noticed such as the gendered nature of some imagery. In this novel the mother is absent, the aunt is distant and the world is masculine. The sea is a male dominion, providing food with men as the ‘hunters’.
Students can find where women are mentioned in the book and then consider:
- From whose point of view are the comments/feelings about women expressed? What does this show about how each male relates to women?
- What is the book saying about male/female relationships?
- In many ways the text is affirming traditional gendered roles. Do you agree?
- Is it possible to challenge the novel and have women as central?
- Do you expect this from a young female writer? Explain your response.
Comparison with other texts
Landscape: Book and film comparison
The landscape from the sea to the desert is powerfully evoked in many Australian texts. The landscape is a human experience that affects us all and yet it is also individual. Students can explore other visual and print texts to locate sections on the landscape. They can look at the trailer of the 2017 film Breath.
- What story does the trailer suggest?
- What differences and similarities do you perceive with the novel Past the Shallows?
- Would Past the Shallows still work if it were set in a desert?
Family: Book and poem comparison
Another important experience that unites us all is the sense of family, and yet family can also be a source of disunity. The poem ‘Diptych’ by Robert Gray provides a good point of comparison on family. Students may consider:
- How different or similar are the depictions of family in the poem and the novel?
- Which do you find most moving: the poetic or novel form?
Rich assessment task
Imaginative writing and reflection
In this multifaceted task you will reimagine the story in different ways and then reflect on what you realised about imaginative writing from changing the text. You will need to identify and justify your choices of stylistic techniques.
Part A: Imaginative writing – ‘What if…?’
a. What if the story were set somewhere else?
Collect images of different Australian landscapes: the mountains, a country town, the snowfields, the desert, the opal fields, the tropics, etcetera. Write the story of the Curren family in a different setting:
- What work would they have?
- How different would the mood have been?
b. What if Mum hadn’t died?
This time you need to reimagine the story but just for one scene. Write a scene as if the mother was still alive.
c. What if the story had been a poem?
Write a poem based on a section or the whole novel; in the poem, mood and tone will be more important than events and character.
d. What if the story had been a play?
Write a scene for a play based on the same section as you used for the poem. This time dialogue will drive the ideas.
Part B: Reflection
Reflect upon yourself as writer.
- How difficult were these tasks?
- Which task was the most difficult and why?
- Which task was the sexiest and why?
- What decision did you have to make about the story as you adapted the novel for each task?
Revisiting initial responses
Students should return to the initial reactions in their journal and discuss how they changed their views as they read the book. They can look again at the list of book covers and answer: ‘Now that you have read the novel what would you include in a design for a book cover?’
‘How I read a book’
Reading is not a ‘natural’ act. We learn ways of reading. Often the way we read for school is different to the way we read for ‘pleasure’, but reading for school can be a pleasurable act. Whatever the attitude, it is important to be able to verbalise this. In this section students will be asked to reflect on their own reading style and how they can read more effectively.
Tim Parks, a reviewer for the New York Review of Books says that reading is an ‘active skill’ that comes from experience and not ‘passive absorption’. He describes his reading in this way, using the example of Murakami’s book, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage:
As I dive into the opening pages, the first question I’m asking is, what are the qualities or values that matter most to this author, or at least in this novel? I start Murakami’s Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage and at once it is about a man who has been excluded from a group of friends without knowing why; the mishap has plunged him into a depression that seems disproportionate to the damage suffered. So I begin to look for everything relating to community and belonging, to the individual’s relationship to the community, to loneliness and companionship. I underline any words that fall into this lexical field. Is the community positive or negative or both? Are there advantages to being excluded, even when it is painful? Do loneliness and depression produce strength, creativity? Is the book aligning itself with the position of the person excluded?
Parks also asks ‘what is the emotional atmosphere behind this book?’
What reviewer Tim Parks is doing is constantly looking for the themes that underpin the text. His questions move from identifying the character and the initial character relationships to classifying these as big ideas about community and identity. Even from the opening, he is looking for the deeper meaning in the text and how the author creates this meaning through words (lexical field). He does this by engaging with the text through questions. Returning students to the opening with this in mind is a good way of reviewing, not just the book, but their own reading habits.
Using the Parks’ paragraph as model, students are to reassess their own reading experience. They reread the novel’s opening and complete this cloze activity (PDF, 99KB) based on the Parks’ comment:
They can then consider the other question Parks asks: ‘What is the emotional atmosphere behind this book?’ and can look for how the author creates this mood through language.
Rich assessment task
What is it that makes Past the Shallows award-winning and worthy of study
While this novel has had significant positive response, there are varied perspectives about its success. It is valuable for students to consider how one text can have different meaning for different readers not only ideologically but aesthetically.
In the television program – The First Tuesday Bookclub – one of the panellists, Jason Steiger says:
‘We all read books and have different responses to them.’
The host, Jennifer Byrne also comments:
‘What an author wants most is to find a reader. Now, whether that reader loves it or even thinks it’s not as good as that person’s book, whatever, but you want people to know that you’ve written this book, and that’s the hardest thing.’
Access this episode of The First Tuesday Bookclub.
Students watch the episode as a class or in groups. They:
- note the different perspectives the panellists have on the book,
- print a copy of the transcript,
- highlight the comments from the reviewers which most resonate with them and their group,
- share these and discuss with the class.
Reflecting on the novel:
- Students click on the link to reviews on the The First Tuesday Bookclub page.
- They read the reviews and these review comments from print media:
- ‘An intensely moving story, written in finely crafted and gripping prose. Utterly brilliant.’ (Image Magazine)
- ‘A work by a new master…Parrett’s debut is an uncompromising and memorable tale’ (The Sunday Tasmanian)
- ‘An understated and beautifully penned story set on the Tasmanian coast…gives voice to two brothers as their lives are influenced by unpredictable forces…Parrett’s writing is exquisite in its simplicity and eloquence, and her narrative is heart-rending. This poignant story resonates.’ (Kirkus Reviews, USA)
- ‘It is a bleakly beautiful, elemental work that demands slow, mindful, and patient reading. It is a story of secrets and survival. For those willing to put in the effort, it is well worth it.’ (Goodreads)
- ‘It is an emotional story and sad. At one point I noticed I was holding my breath while I was reading. I felt myself getting attached to the characters and wanted to be there for them. I ended up crying at the end. This book will stay with me for a while. Beautiful and heartbreaking at the same time.’ (Goodreads)
They then respond:
- Which review comes closest to your group’s understanding of Past the Shallows? Explain your choice.
- In groups students write their own 250-word review for a school Facebook page to enthuse the next cohort about this text. They should include a clever title which would interest their age group.