Home comforts

<strong>Secrets of the Sea</strong>

Nicholas Shakespeare <em>Harvill Secker, 304pp, £12.99</em>

Alex and Merridy, both haunted by losses suffered in childhood, find themselves drawn to one another, each reassured by the other’s similar grief. Secrets of the Sea recounts the couple’s courtship and marriage, their attempts to make a go of their Tasmanian farm, to have children, to question and be reconciled with the choices they have made.

The episodic nature of this long novel about a family’s fortunes can sometimes recall such Victorian dramas as The Newcomes, but whereas Thackeray’s characters demonstrated the slow, weighty effects of empire and society, Alex and Merridy live in a time seemingly absent of larger forces. The emphasis shifts uneasily between inner lives minutely recorded and the places and experiences that surround them. Events occur not exactly in isolation, but their relationship to one another is mostly chronological: some have consequences, others don’t, and coincidence is never far away.

From its composition, one might almost believe that Secrets of the Sea had been written as a serial, and, like a serial, its pleasures are essentially domestic: a comforting sense of familiarity, reassuring predictability and a stubborn tendency to resist significant change, even at its most dramatic.