Book Review: The Gulf is a powerfully crafted tale of childhood, resilience, and, above all, love

Skye’s mum has a new boyfriend. His name is Jason and they’re all moving to Port Flinders with him. But Jason is bad news, and Skye’s mum is in too deep, unable – or unwilling – to see the danger Skye and her little brother, walking animal fact factory Ben, are in.

So Ben and Skye hatch a plan to get the three of them out of Port Flinders and away from Jason, his dodgy friends, and the worrying stacks of five dollar notes around his dirty home: Earn more money. Go to Nonno’s house. Above all, don’t tell Jason.

But what seems simple to a ten year old boy, is painfully difficult for a teenager. Acutely aware of the darkness of their situation, Skye is ready to give it all up to get her brother out of there, even a potential relationship with school football star Raf.

There’s a train to Adelaide first thing each morning. They need to be on it. And soon.

The second novel from the lyrical hand of Anna Spargo-Ryan, The Gulf alternates between breaking your heart and shoving it firmly in your mouth. With a plot that, without the book to hand, can sound a little like a mix of emotional YA fiction and a well paced thriller, the novel is in fact uniquely Spargo-Ryan, filled with what one hopes will become her signature touches – vibrant characters, beautifully crafted prose, and imagery so strong you want to reach out and touch it.

At its core, The Gulf is a story about love, in many varied forms, good, bad, and crushingly painful. There’s so much here, from Skye’s love for her brother, the stories of her absent father, and her budding romance with Raf to mum Linda disappearing into her toxic relationship with Jason, and the ultimate symbol of unconditional love, a dog, left lamed and blinded, chained up in a yard. As a result, The Gulf is hard and it’s sad and it hurts, but it also uplifts, empowers, and offers hope.

A more than worthy follow up to the tortured whimsy of The Paper House, The Gulf is often hard going, but even harder to put it down. Carried by a sixteen year old trying to balance protecting her little brother from the worst with maintaining at least a little of her own childhood, it is is a powerful tale of resilience and strength, particularly that of children and young people. Skye is, as another character rightly says, an absolute champion.

The Gulf by Anna Spargo-Ryan is published by Pan Macmillan Australia and is available now.