Review: The Gulf by Anna Spargo-Ryan - If there's a book you have to read this year, it's this one.

Thursday, 19 October 2017

The Gulf by Anna Spargo-Ryan
Released: 30th May 2017
Published by: Pan Macmillan Australia
Genre: Adult contemporary/coming of age
Source: Library
Pages: 285
My Rating: 5 of 5 stars
'He found an egg at the park so he incubated it and this tortoise hatched out.' 

Skye's sixteen, and her mum's got yet another new boyfriend. Trouble is, Jason's bad news. Really bad. Now mum's quit her job and they're all moving north to Port Flinders, population nobody.

'That's a Southern Right Whale. They have the largest balls of any animal in the world.' 

She'd do anything to keep her ten-year-old brother safe. Things she can't even say out loud. And when Jason gets violent, Skye knows she has to take control. She's got to get Ben out and their mum's useless as. The train home to Adelaide leaves first thing each morning and they both need to be on it. Everything else can wait.

'Ladybirds bleed from their knees when they're stressed.' 

The Gulf is an acute, moving and uplifting story from the inimitable, alchemical imagination of Anna Spargo-Ryan.
I haven't been this moved by a book in a long time. Anna Spargo-Ryan's depiction of the children inadvertently swept up in a dangerously dysfunctional family is achingly real, her writing flawless. I always find it interesting where adult fiction features teen protagonists, and here reading Skye's story as she does anything to protect her ten year-old brother Ben from their harsh reality was no exception. Though this novel deals with some heavy themes, the depth to the characters within it brought a tenderness which left me thinking about them days after I turned the last page.

I went to the door. She was there, folded, on the ground. Knees drawn up to her chest. Her body moved rigidly, statically, and her shoulders slumped as though the air had been pulled right out of them. 

The rule of 'show, don't tell' which exemplifies 'good writing' is a difficult one to master. For a reader, it can be the difference between whether you make an emotional connection with the plot, or simply view the words on a page as a detached bystander. After finishing The Gulf, I can see why Spargo-Ryan has risen to critical acclaim on this point. Every scene she writes, each moment of conflict or reflection which her characters experience is captured through a lens which focuses on how they feel - so you are right there with them. Watching as Skye and Ben were affected by their mother's toxic relationship was at times confronting, however the unflinching portrayal of family violence and spiralling impact of Jason's shady business never veered into territory which was insensitive or contemptuous.

Sometimes all it takes is a few lines to convey the essence of a story, and it's these words which made the biggest impact on me:

I took a deep breath. Watched the hallway slide away from me, pulled myself up as tall as I could. Sucked in all the courage I had, all the bravery I'd ever collected from watching Ben going around in the world exactly the way he wanted. 

What I loved about this book is that alongside the insidious cruelty of Skye and Ben's situation was a glimpse of some goodness left in the world. Jason may have dragged the whole family to a tiny coastal town where they had to start over, but it's there that through the most troubling times came the most heartwarming moments. As their mum grew more distant, Skye displayed a maturity well beyond that of a sixteen-year-old through practically looking after her brother, remaining determined to plan for a brighter future ahead. It was also good to see her defined beyond the challenges she faced at home, through the 'normal' experiences of being a student, and someone on the cusp of a friendship which could be something more.

Then there's Ben: one of the most charismatic, quirky and knowledgeable ten-year-olds I've ever come across in a novel. Getting to see their life through his eyes with an innocence that only a child can possess, brought this book to a whole other level. It was never overly sentimental or lost touch with reality, but gave this story all that it needed to be truly memorable - heart. 


Anna Spargo-Ryan has produced my favourite book of the year so far. The Gulf is impeccably written, but its real triumph is revealing the courage needed to make a better life, and the sacrifices we make to find it. 


  1. Wow. I hadn't heard of this one before, but you've absolutely convinced me. I'm definitely going to give this a try. Thanks for sharing and, as always, fabulous post! <3

    1. I really hope you love it as much as I did, thanks Zoe!


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