Castagna, Felicity. No More Boats. 2017. Artarmon: Giramondo Publishing. RRP: $26.95. 232pp. ISBN: 9781925336306
It’s 2001 in Felicity Castagna’s No More Boats. Over 400 refugees are sitting in a boat off the shoreline of Australia on the Norwegian container ship Tampa, awaiting their fate after being rescued from a sinking boat. The Howard government of Australia has refused them entry to the country; the ship is not even permitted to dock. The whole situation creates a new tension between Australia as a welcoming and diverse country with a reputation as being a haven for migrants, and an Australia that’s uncertain as to just how open its borders should be.
It’s among this turmoil that Felicity Castagna opens the doors to a family home in a quiet Sydney suburb. The narrative follows the Martone family: father Antonio, forced to retire after an accident at work that killed his friend; mother Rose, ‘the Australian-born daughter of an English Rose’ (128); daughter Clare, a disgraced teacher with an unsettled social life; and son Francis, a lazy stoner interested only in getting drunk and getting laid. As the events on the Tampa start to unfold, so the Martone family begins to unravel. Italian-born Antonio, watching the events, continually rejects his own migrant past, refusing to even acknowledge the multiculturalism of their family unit: ‘Clare had made a collage of images of Italy for multicultural day at her school once, and he’d just stared blankly at it and said, “We’re Australian. I’m Australian”.’ (99) His slow slip into a lonely kind of madness becomes the backbone of the novel, as he pushes ever more strongly against any kind of similarity between himself and the boat of people seeking refuge.
Ideas of home and belonging are at the centre of Castagna’s narrative. Each member of the Martone family perceives that shared physical space in a different way. For Francis, it’s another place to crash that lacks the nurturing childhood sensations one would associate with a family home:
‘So, maybe he should have stayed home after it all blew up, or maybe he should have gone home eventually, but there were better things to do and besides who ever wanted to be at home anyway?’ (63)
Clare, long moved out and independent, dreads the occasional return home that she has to make, viewing it as a form of entrapment in a life she feels she has left in the past, ‘She was sure other families didn’t feel the way hers did—all that pent-up frustration sitting heavy between the walls until it broke out the moment you had the least emotional energy for it’ (58). Rose chooses her own method of escape as Antonio becomes increasingly unhinged. Rather than isolate herself entirely she remains within reach, staying with a friend next door so that she sees her husband daily, but from a distance, so that his edginess has less of an impact.
For Antonio, the house represents everything that he is and that his life has evolved into—it is a symbol that he is Australian. He reminisces about how he ‘built his home with his bare hands… you lived in one room until you could afford another. You used the best materials you could find’ (79-80) A stark contrast emerges between the quality ‘sandstone’ with which Antonio builds his home and the cheaper ‘pressed cardboard’ (80) used to build modern apartment blocks that will eventually, perhaps, house migrants settling in the country. This contrast symbolises Antonio’s defiant attempt to show that he belongs in Australia and is different to those yet to be allowed into the country.
Antonio’s rejection of the world he came from and his slow emotional unravelling is one of the most engaging parts of No More Boats. Castagna has a flair for characterisation that pulls at the emotions. Francis feels hardly worth the bother but his indifference is compelling. Clare isn’t at all likable but garners sympathy because the sense of entrapment in the family unit that she struggles with is something many people will relate to. Rose is frustratingly passive and Antonio is incomprehensible. The complexities of human relationships, whether they be within a family, local community or a nation, are teased out and revealed in all their spiteful, unhinged glory as the plot delves deeper and deeper into questions of welcome, belonging and rejection. It’s a political tale, one that exposes not only wider, national ideologies but also the origins of those perceptions in the nucleus of the Australian family unit. No More Boats is a book that should be read slowly and considerately, because every detail is significant. It’s an engaging and gripping second novel from Castagna (her first, The Incredible Here and Now, won the Prime Minister’s Literature Award (YA) in 2013) and one can only hope that there’s more of the same still to come.
Felicity Castagna is the author of a collection of stories, Small Indiscretions: Stories of Travel in Asia, and a young adult novel, The Incredible Here and Now. She has written for a range of national newspapers and magazines, and has had her work produced for ABC Radio National and ABC television.
Jen is a writer and journalist currently based in Perth. She lived and worked in Edinburgh, Scotland for ten years and has written for a number of UK newspapers and magazines including The List, The Guardian and The Scotsman. She is currently the Arts and Events Editor of scoopevents.com.au