Papas, Maria. Skimming Stones. Fremantle: Fremantle Press, 2021. RRP: $29.99, 208pp, ISBN: 9781760990640.
Maria Papas is no stranger to persistence, it would seem. A decade after a previous manuscript was shortlisted for Fremantle Press’s prestigious Hungerford Award, the WA-based writer took the prize in 2020 for Skimming Stones (then called I Belong to the Lake).
For us, it was worth the wait. In this stunning debut Papas explores the devastating and traumatic impact of serious illness. But not for the patient: for the families supporting them through it. This reversal of the roles so often seen in stories of illness offers supporting characters the chance to tell their tale. The effect is emotional, raw and powerful.
Skimming Stones is told from the perspective of Grace, a paediatric oncology nurse in a large Perth hospital. She is sister to Emma, who was ill with leukaemia as a child. After Grace begins an affair with Nate, the boy she met in the corridors and waiting rooms of the hospital where both their siblings were being treated, old memories of her sister’s illness are uncovered. This makes Grace consider what her own future might look like.
What makes this novel so powerful is the way Papas avoids gratuitous depictions of cancer and the devastating impact it has on the lives of those dealing with it. Rather than spectacle and superfluity, we witness the subtle, heart-breaking depiction of the trauma Grace’s family experience seeing Emma suffer; Papas focuses on is the change in the way Grace comes to view the world as a result of Emma’s illness:
Before my sister’s leukaemia, the colours of summer were olive and orange, and the leaves, which were narrow, crunched underfoot […] We had tuart trees. We had swamplands. We were a brackish town, estuarine—magical as far as I was concerned—but the tourists often bypassed us on the way to somewhere else. (47)
The simplicity of the word ‘before’ is all it takes to hint at the impact Emma’s cancer had on Grace and her family. Throughout the novel Papas also shows a skill for unravelling minute details, which take the reader at a steady pace and describe the slow, agonising journey of illness.
Family is at the heart of Skimming Stones, but isn’t defined in the novel as solely denoting blood relations. Instead, Papas writes a mishmash of neighbours, extended family and other families at the hospital, to show how the illness of a child can forge unbreakable bonds between people. While Grace’s mother stays with Emma in Perth, her father unravels at home, so much so that Grace comes to depend on their neighbours for comfort and stability:
If it hadn’t been for Harriet and Samuel back then, I don’t know what would have become of me […] more than my mother, more than anyone, Harriet was the one I sought whenever I wanted someone to speak to. She was always there when I needed her. (112)
The poignancy of this statement lies in the fact that Grace, as the well child, comes second to the sick Emma. Grace finds support in Harriet and Samuel and comes to view the couple as a surrogate family who can care for her and attend to her trauma.
This trauma of seeing her sister seriously ill—and, in part, of coming second in the eyes of her mother—comes to define Grace’s later life, influencing the way she views her own relationships with other people and herself. When she begins her affair with Nate, she can’t help but see her past lingering in the present: she is second again, to Nate’s wife and his ‘real’ family, and reflects on how her past has brought her to her present situation:
When I looked back towards Nate, I saw my father and what he did to my mother. I saw the lies I told myself and the truths I omitted […] even with that freshly etching into my memory, even then, my longing for his touch was both distressing and familiar. (33)
Nate is both a comfort and a trauma trigger for Grace. He opens up the old wound of her sister’s condition and the devastation that Grace’s family experienced, but he’s also the only one who knows what she went through.
Skimming Stones is a smart, sophisticated and emotive book that gently unravels the incomparable trauma of a family caught in a loved one’s illness. It is heart-breaking and uplifting at the same time and offers a detailed and thoughtful insight into our own understanding of what it is to love and be loved.
Jen is a writer and journalist 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 previously worked for Scoop Events and in the marketing team at Fremantle Press, and is now a freelance writer and editor.