Monday, 20 February 2017

Review: In at the Deep End by Penelope Janu

3 stars

In at the Deep End was a quirky Aussie romance by debut author Penelope Janu. I'd really been looking forward to this one, but I'm left feeling ambivalent, because, while I enjoyed the second half, I didn't connect to the first half.

Harriet 'Harry' Scott grew up in the public eye as the daughter of two globe-trotting conservationist documentary-makers. But an accident in her childhood has left her petrified of water. When the ship she is captaining - which was once her parent's but is now owned by the charitable foundation they set up - goes down in Antarctic waters, Per Amundsen comes to her rescue. He's a Commander in the Norwegian Navy, on loan to the Australian Navy, and he's unimpressed by Harriet's plight. The sinking of the The Watch has damaged Harry's reputation, but Per has lost his chance to undertake his research on the Antarctic ice shelves. 

Harry has a plan to put things right: the Scott Foundation will buy a new ship, and Per can use that for his research. But the foundation doesn't have the money. Although Harry's high profile and Per's scientific connections would help fundraising efforts, Per wants no part of it. He thinks that Harriet is incompetent, irresponsible and a danger to herself and others. When it becomes clear that the only way he will get what he wants is by working with her, Per places a condition on his involvement: Harriet must learn to swim. And, when Per takes charge of Harry's swimming lessons himself, sparks fly. 

The whole novel is written from Harriet's perspective. This gives the reader an awareness her phobia - which I thought was portrayed realistically and sympathetically, as were the other psychological matters the book dealt with - but it also means that, until late in the piece, the reader sees Per as Harriet sees him: as an uptight, overbearing pain-in-her-ass. 

This lack of insight into the hero was critical to me, because I had trouble relating to Harriet. She doodles in high-stakes meetings with lawyers, even when people are talking directly to her. In her day-job as a geography teacher, she seems to spend more time drawing pictures on the whiteboard or talking to her students about her personal life than teaching the curriculum. She's also massively clumsy, which never sits well with me. Some of her irrationality and juvenility can be attributed to her phobia, but not all of it. For example, about mid-way through the book, Harry elbows Per in the stomach, because he's holding her arm and she's having a panic attack. That's perfectly acceptable. But then, towards the end, she punches him - 3 times - because he's "frustrating and intractable" (loc. 4409). Not acceptable. The romance between the two is a very slow-burn, which I usually love, but characterisation here meant that I had trouble even getting to the point where the romance began to warm up. 

However, the second half, when Per and Harriet worked through their enmity, was nuanced and engaging. As Harriet and Per opened up to each other - particularly he to her, since we're already inside her head - I was better able to invest in their relationship. Their growing closeness allowed Per to be the kind of hero that I love, caring and compassionate. In fact, there were a few moments that gave me butterflies, especially around the way he handled consent and safe sex. 

I also really enjoyed the fact that In at the Deep End was set in Sydney, where I live. I can't help but feel a connection to a book that references and describes familiar places like the Quadrangle at USyd, the HMAS Penguin at Balmoral and Royal North Shore Hospital, which I have always known like the back of my hand, first because it was my dad's workplace, and then because it was my own. 

Because of my background in health care (and my general pedantry), I was pulled out of the story several times because of the artistic license taken with medical matters. While there's nothing wrong with that, and I doubt it will bother anyone else, I can't help but issue a PSA: if someone has hypothermia, don't massage or rub or massage their body or extremities. Best case scenario, you'll send the patient into worse shock and severely chaff their skin. Worst case scenario, you've got a cardiac arrest on your hands. 

Harriet's reminiscences about her childhood travelling the world also made me quite uncomfortable, because they were continually exoticising and primitivising other cultures: 
When I was fifteen I spent weeks living with him in stilted huts on the banks of rivers in South-East Asia. The village women forced me to eat even though their own children were far skinnier than I was. The following year...we catalogued the wildebeest migration from the Serengeti in Kenya to the Masai-Mara in Kenya. A few months after that we spent the summer on horseback with Mongolian herdsmen on China's Silk Road. (loc. 317) 
There's a lot of footage of Drew and me dancing together--with Ghanaian drummers, North American boot-scooters, Turkish belly dancers. He used to say that he only got into trouble when I wasn't dancing with him, like the time he waltzed with a dictator's mistress in Cuba, and did the tango with a Geisha in Japan. (loc. 2079)
Paragraphs like these occur throughout the book, and I suppose their purpose is to highlight Harriet's experiences across the world growing up, but they brought nothing to the story. In fact, they often interrupted the narrative flow, and the way people and their lives are made into props in Harriet's 'adventurous' life left me feeling a little bit off. 

Because I did have such disparate feelings about different parts of this book, I've been struggling with this review for a long time. I've had trouble putting everything into words, so this isn't a particularly eloquent or coherent review. It's very rant-y for something that I ended up giving 3 stars to, but I was just so damn ambivalent about everything. I'd think of something I disliked and lower my rating, then remember something that worked for me and bump it back up. In the end, I went with 3 stars, but it's one of those cases where I think people should make up their own minds. Almost all other reviews have been favourable, so if it sounds like something that's up your alley, give it a go. Maybe it's just me, and you'll have an easier time with it.

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