Hall, Mel. The Little Boat on Trusting Lane. Fremantle: Fremantle Press, 2021. RRP: $29.99, 272pp, ISBN: 9781925816617.
‘Your enthusiasm is your superpower!’ Richard announced, back then. When he said that, it felt like August was being given special permission; it was okay to just be herself. What Richard didn’t know was that August had been seeking healing for such a long time, before she chanced upon his scrapyard, and found acceptance there. (52)
Mel Hall’s The Little Boat on Trusting Lane follows two young healers, Finn and August, who work with Richard, the owner of a healing centre run out of a houseboat in a scrapyard in Fremantle. Richard seems incapable of practical tasks like cleaning and home maintenance, keeping his clients waiting while he digresses into odd asides, wordplay and mourns the loss of a relationship from twenty years prior. As a result, his houseboat is in a state of disrepair and his business as well as the weekly group he runs, Invisible Exit Wounds Anonymous—or IEWA—is dwindling. Finn and August are left to do what seems to be the bulk of the work, tidying around Richard as he tramps over the boat and rattles the floorboards. It is an uncomfortable set-up for them. But in this space, all three characters receive something they cannot get anywhere else: belonging, solace and company that simply accepts them as they are. The problems emerge when each character struggles with their own self-acceptance, and acceptance of their losses and desires. August struggles to define and contain herself in a world that is a source of endless delight and excitement, Finn struggles with intimacy and chronic pain and Richard battles with his past loss and a lack of direction or boundaries. All of them find something they might call home in The Little Mother Earth Ship.
Into this landscape enters Celestiaa, an ‘aggressive healer’ and savvy businesswoman. Richard, August and Finn are transfixed by her, seeing in her a sexuality and healing that has so far eluded them. But, of course, what they are variously searching for—identity, recovery, belonging—is an inside job. The radical acceptance and openness the characters aspire to also leaves them open to influence, especially when their own wants and needs are so far from fulfilled or even understood.
The Little Boat on Trusting Lane was longlisted for Fremantle Press’ Fogarty Literary Award in 2019. Its quasi-fictional Fremantle spiritual community feels like a real, albeit fun-house mirror satire of elements of the Fremantle community, though it is also populated with unlikeable characters and charlatans. With August and Richard shouting almost every line of dialogue, and Finn’s passive-oversharing conversational style, even the protagonists are often frustrating. But Hall grants rich insight into their internal worlds which helps the reader to develop empathy, especially for Finn and the irrepressible August. And, at times, the jarring contrast between what the character thinks and feels and what the world sees shows the demands of conformity—even in non-conformist circles. Performativity and a dark, manipulative streak in the spiritual community reveals itself as the characters delve deep. The boat is on Trusting Lane for a reason: the willingness to trust runs as a thread of both redemption and risk through the novel.
The novel’s satirical depiction of its world is firmly tongue-in-cheek, and Hall’s wry humour is truly enjoyable. Though, at times, it’s uncertain as to whether we are laughing at the characters, or with them:
Pure Source Organics was the go-to store for organic papaya, green smoothies for the beach and the perfect supplements for building up cartilage in the knees.
Occasionally, scent-sitive customers coughed, complaining that someone had been testing the sage deodorant. They would need to be given a glass of filtered water to help counter the reaction.
Some would not sit at the tables outside to drink their long blacks with coconut oil. They said: ‘No way I’m sitting out there! Too many heavy metals blowing in the breeze.’ (26)
And, while the story is empowering—one of love, community and finding belonging while maintaining individuality—it often doesn’t read that way. The protagonists’ search for meaning is undermined by the acerbic eye cast over them, and the depth of the dysfunction of some of the novel’s relationships is only highlighted towards its conclusion, through contrast with characters who seem to have respect for boundaries: August’s parents. When reality finally kicks in, Richard, who to this point has had no boundaries at all, suddenly finds some in defence of the safety of his friends, in one of the novel’s laugh-out-loud moments, telling Celestiaa:
‘I respect your words, thank you for sharing. Please fuck off now’ (224).
There is a somewhat fitting meandering quality to this story, which allows space to unpack the lifestyle choices and belief systems of even minor characters—though this can sometimes feel distracting. Curiously, the suspension of disbelief that the reader might expect to be necessary in a story about alien experiences and spiritual manifestations is just not needed. It is easy to believe these characters exist in a junkyard on the outskirts of Fremantle, and while the health food shop is created with exaggerated realism, the overlap of spiritual, religious and wellness circles are true-to-life. In this carefully created satire, Hall shows the way trust, individual identity and community work as both comfort and constraint, and how living an authentic life is a work of constant evolution, collaboration and self-knowledge.
Rachel Watts is a writer of literary and speculative fiction and short, creative non-fiction. Her writing has been published by Westerly, Island, Kill Your Darlings, The Big Issue and more. Her manuscript ‘In the Morning I Rise’ was shortlisted for the 2020 Penguin Literary Prize.