REVIEW: STELLA'S SEA BY SALLY-ANN JONES

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STELLA’S SEA

Author: Sally-Ann Jones
UWA Publishing RRP eBook $24.99
Review: Monique Mulligan

‘I’ve been lonely and I know loneliness makes you walk with heavy shoes.’

Written with tender simplicity, Stella’s Sea is a departure from her usual writing; this is Sally-Ann Jones’s first novel for a general readership, but the freelance journalist already has five “sexy” romance novels to her name. Set in Western Australia, the book is a quiet examination of grief and its impact on the protagonist, Stella, using descriptions of nature to symbolise marriage, love, loss and life.

After her daughter, Miff, is killed in a motorcycle accident and her marriage breaks down, Stella moves to the coastal and well-to-do suburb of Cottesloe. Her brother lives overseas and her father is in a nursing home, so her only company is her daughter’s dog, Pom. Walking along the beach with Pom becomes a regular routine, as does coffee in one of the less hip coffee shops near the beach. It’s nothing out of the ordinary for the area’s residents, but Stella, in her beekeeper clothes, stands out – it’s clear there’s something different about her. Once a loud, vibrant woman, Stella doesn’t want to stick out and keeps her head down and feelings close; her garments have not been chosen for conspicuous display, rather because they were there. Over time she forges tentative friendships with Deirdre, a younger woman with a toddler and epileptic husband, and Ari, a former prisoner working as a Coastcare volunteer and in the coffee shop Stella frequents. Deirdre and Ari both know Stella is holding back something (aside from wearing her grief like a cloak, she’s skilled at evasion and changing the subject) and it soon becomes clear that guilt, as much as grief, is stopping her from healing.

Nature is used in two main ways to underline the themes of Stella’s Sea. First, there is the ocean – constant, primal and raw; the ocean is a beautiful metaphor for grief and loss – sometimes it’s a heaving, sweeping and overpowering wave of feelings, and other times it’s a flat ache with ripples and undercurrents only visible to keen observers. Secondly, there are the bees, an apt metaphor for womanhood, sex and love. As the stories of Stella, Ari and their parents’ marriages are revealed, the story of the wasp being tricked by a clever orchid takes on a new meaning. We don’t always know the person we love or end up with – sometimes they (or we) wear a mask (or change) and choices need to be made. Was it realistic that all of the marriages were portrayed as broken and built on deceit? I found this aspect sad, but it served to highlight another strong theme: that of loneliness.

Stella’s Sea mixes melancholy with hope, stopping short of being despairing by reinforcing the act of nurturing through Stella’s new friendships and the nature v nurture debate at its roots. It’s a quiet, gentle book, one that will be underrated by comparison to other mainstream novels, but that by no means does this suggest it has something to say. I think it has a lot to say – that grief comes in many guises and ebbs and flows like the tide, that loneliness is one of the most common human experiences, and so on. Book Club Notes are available for this title and among possible subjects for discussion are the portrayals of marriage, the characters’ motivations and why Miff was such a disappointment to her father. It’s a quick read with short chapters alternating between viewpoints, flashbacks and present day, but an absorbing one; I liked it.

Available from good bookstores and UWA Publishing. This copy was courtesy of UWA Publishing.

Bookish treat: Instant ginger tea … the brand I buy is spicy but soothing and I start most days with it.