Minor Characters, Secrecy, and Toxic Masculinity: Conveying Significant Themes in ‘Past the Shallows’

Favell Parrett’s novel Past The Shallows is the chilling and hard-hitting story concentrated on the lives of brothers Harry and Miles as they grow up and experience the many hardships of life with their father in rural Tasmania. This book focuses on several powerful issues and ideas including the toxicity of traditional masculinity, parental relationships, and, the negative effect that secrets can have on a person. The expression of these ideas is aided in the book by the introduction of several minor characters who help the main characters to express themselves, grow, and provide a point of contrast. The character Jeff is used by Parrett to enable the reader to reflect of the ideas of toxic masculinity; and the violent outcomes that can come as a result of traditional expressions of masculinity.

Jeff is erratic, unhinged, and destructive; his actions towards both children in the book, brutal and shocking. He fuels the fathers’ alcoholism, and provides encouragement for the continuation of the pairs violent actions. In a drunken stupor after a two-day binge, the men torment young Harry. “It’s the littlest retard” Jeff says, and pours him a large alcoholic drink. When Harry refuses to drink this, his father lashes out and angrily says “you’ll bloody drink it”. Fuelled by alcohol, this sick game continues, neither man willing to back down and forfeit, until Miles steps in to break them up. It is obvious that the two men are competing in a show of masculinity and fighting the fear of appearing as weak. The societal expectation for men to be tough having exaggeratedly manifested into this vehemence and callousness. This can be seen further in Jeff’s actions and attitude throughout the book, such as when “he grabbed Harry in a headlock, wrapped his thick arm around Harrys neck and pulled tight”. To see someone removed from the family act in this unnecessarily cruel way towards a child and have their own father look on with nonchalance and even at times encourage these actions highlights the negative aspect of their relationship and the issues men can have with confronting each other.

The idea that parental relationships can be toxic and difficult to escape is shown through Parrett’s introduction of several minor characters including Mrs Phillips and Mr Roberts. Whilst only a small act of kindness, Mrs Phillips “always” putting “hot water bottles” into Harrys bed shows her treating him as an equal to her son. Similarly, Mr Roberts putting “his hand on” Miles’s “shoulder” in a time of desperation is a comforting and kind gesture, nicer than any action of the boys’ own father in the book. Parrett’s inclusion of these ‘faux-parental’ figures and their fleeting moments of compassion towards the boys illustrates an idealised world. It shows what their relationship with their father should be like and thus emphasises the cruel reality. Mrs Phillips concern for Harry can be seen through her moment of hesitation at the prospect of him returning to his abusive home environment. “Maybe you should come home with us, sweetie” she suggests. At this point, the internal conflict that she feels at her lack of ability to help him is palpable. This conflict is once again paralleled in Mr Roberts warning “don’t you get stuck here with your dad…you’ve had it rough enough”. Despite the sympathy from those around them the boys receive no real help and continue to battle through their attempts to leave home. The struggle communicating the fact that even with support, escaping an abusive parental environment is extremely difficult.

While the characters themselves play no real role, the secrets left behind by Uncle Nick and the mother in Past The Shallows are used by Parrett in building the idea that secrets can have a negative effect on people. Through the slow reveal of segments of these secrets within Miles’s flashbacks as the story progresses Parrett has utilised these characters as a platform to aid in the character progression of the more major characters. The inner torment felt by Miles in withholding and not being able to understand the fractured secrets in his memory can be seen in the extract ‘I know what happened to Mum,” he said, ‘You think I don’t but I do”. This shows that Miles has been concealing this knowledge for some time and it is distressing to him. As more information about Nick and the mother’s relationship and deaths are uncovered throughout the novel it also becomes clear the effect that this has had on the father. The withholding of the secrets led to the creation of more secrets, which the father was dealing with on his own. The weight of his knowledge caused him significant emotional trauma. These secrets were the root of his alcoholism, shaping him into a bitter and angry man who struggled to express himself. They catalysed his downward spiral into abhorrence which ultimately resulted in the murder of his own son.

Almost all of the negative events that take place in ‘Past The Shallows’ can be tied back in to the initial withholding of secrets, and as such Parrett has effectively shown the idea that keeping secrets can have a negative effect. While only minor characters, Jeff, Stuart and Mrs. Phillips, Mr. Roberts, and Uncle Nick and the mother play a vital role in the progression and expression of ideas in Past The Shallows. Parrett’s inclusion of these characters allowed the ideas of toxic masculinity, the negative effect of secrets and the toxicity of family relationships to develop in intensity, and ultimately come to fruition.

Past the Shallows: The Power of Nature and Loss

Past the Shallows by Favel Parrett is a novel that details the experiences of a family as they struggle to survive in the harsh environments of the southern Tasmanian coast. Each chapter is a vignette that provides a snapshot of the family’s life as told through the perspective of Harry or Miles, who are brothers living under the rule of their father, a violent alcoholic. Alternating in perspective gives the author a chance to explore how events affect people in different and personal ways. For example, as the character of Miles is explored, the impact that the losses of his uncle, brother, innocence, and childhood had on him are brought into sharp focus. These losses make him regard the power of nature with a mixture of fear and awe, a potent blend that makes the reader very conscious of how the power of nature shapes the family’s life in the same way it shapes the coastlines that are “worn by the water and by the wind and the rain until they were gone from sight” (10).

Miles’ relationship with the power of nature is complex, and this is shown through juxtaposition in the novel. At the beginning of the novel, Miles is portrayed as someone who “knew the water. He could feel it. And he knew not to trust it” (10), but on page 43 he runs to meet Joe who is “waiting there for him when the boat came in. Waiting in the orange van,” (43) to take Miles surfing. Pages 134-135 details a surfing scene where Miles says that he “lived for this, for these moments when everything stops except your heart beating and time bends and ripples – moves past your eyes frame by frame and you feel beyond time and before time and no one can touch you” (135). But even when Miles is joyously surfing, he remains aware of the power of nature. This is shown through quotes such as “He felt the lines punch hard underneath him, pick him up like he was just a leaf, a piece of seaweed” (134) and “this wave was going to take him whether he liked it or not” (135). These quotes characterise the ocean, a technique that is first used when Miles goes on the boat and sees “places where the water was angry” (10). By the end of the book, Miles seems to have a spiritual connection with the water and feels as though he is “part of the deep water, part of the waves. Part of the rocks and reefs along the shore” (225).

The losses Miles has suffered are a large part of why he is so aware of the power of nature. For example, he lost his Uncle Nick when he out to check on the boat “and they never found him. Not one bit. Not his beanie. Not his boots. Not his bones” (8). The punchy alliteration in this quote helps emphasise the emotions that the loss of his uncle evoked in Miles, but it also affected Miles in ways far greater than just emotional distress. “Just like his brother before him, he must fill the gap Uncle Nick left” (7) on the boat, and this daunting job has contributed greatly to a loss of innocence. Uncle Nick’s death is also a weight that the Dad carries and he says “he’d never forgive himself” (8). The guilt makes the Dad a cruel man, and his violence forces Miles to grow up quickly. The loss of Mile’s childhood is shown through a flashback when he is staying at George’s house and realises “he knew that smell. It was the smell of Granddad’s house, the smell of rich, sweet pipe tobacco. And Miles could see Granddad sitting by the fire listening to the radio, his eyes almost closed, slowly puffing on his pipe. And he was there too. Just a small boy, playing on the floor with his Matchbox cars” (154). When Miles’ brother Joe tells him he’s leaving and starts to cry, Miles is indignant and thinks “he didn’t have to live with Dad and work on the boat. He didn’t have to look after Harry” (147). This emphasises for the reader how much responsibility is placed on Miles’ shoulders as a result of his lost innocence.

Favel Parrett’s Past the Shallows uses techniques such as alternating perspectives, juxtaposition, personification, alliteration, and flashbacks to emphasise how loss and the power of nature can shape someone’s life. Parrett uses the character of Miles to link these themes together and impact the reader in an emotional and relatable way. By focusing these themes on one character, Parrett gives the reader a chance to really see how factors such as these can shape and change lives in unique ways as they affect people differently.