Di Cousens reviews No More Boats by Felicity Castagna

Felicity Castagna, No More Boats, Artarmon, NSW: Giramondo, 2017. ISBN  9781925336306

 

Di Cousens

 

There is a rising sense of unease in Felicity Castagna’s new book, No More Boats. The story is played out between a disaffected son, Francis, who drops acid in clubs and gets into fights; a disengaged daughter, Clare, who has given up school teaching to work in a bookshop but who has not revealed this to her family and an increasingly distant wife, Rose, who is becoming estranged from her uncomprehending husband, the Italian immigrant Antonio. He had an accident on a building site, has lost the use of his left arm and has been forced to stop work. The world around him is shifting and becoming unrecognisable and he can no longer find his place in it. Alienated he finds a sense of purpose with a right-wing, ultra-nationalist group who inspire him to paint ‘No More Boats’ on his concrete front lawn.

It is August 2001 and the Norwegian freighter, the Tampa, has picked up 438 asylum seekers and crew from a shipwrecked Indonesian fishing vessel in the waters off Christmas Island. Prime Minister John Howard will not let the Tampa bring the people to Australia. It is the defining moment of his Prime Ministership and gives rise to the slogan that won the 2001 election, ‘We decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come’. It is the moment when Australia shifted from being an inclusive, egalitarian society, to one which accepted the demonisation of refugees and the bastardry of offshore detention. It is the moment when populist racism was allowed into mainstream political discourse and both major political parties adopted the fear of the foreigner as a vote-winning device.

The painting of the slogan, ‘No More Boats’, on the concrete front lawn, signals Antonio’s social and emotional collapse. Castagna expertly describes an incremental process of Antonio’s descent into confusion. He had been going out at night and throwing rocks at the houses he can no longer build, he had told his friends to ‘fuck off’ at his own retirement party after overhearing a remark about his inability to work; he is not able to communicate with his wife or his children. The novel shifts across multiple back stories in a complex tapestry that brings all the characters together at critical incidents. Somehow everyone has an immigrant history. Clare’s colleague and lover, Paul, is Vietnamese. Her mother’s best friend and neighbour, Lucy, is Polish. Francis’s two best friends, Charbel and Jesus, also have immigrant parents. Francis works as a bricklayer and Castagna gives vivid descriptions of the kinds of building shortcuts utilised by profit hungry developers. The novel is embedded in multicultural Parramatta, and many of the major characters either lived or worked at Villawood Migrant Hostel in earlier times.

After the slogan painting incident, Antonio finds himself welcomed by an anti-immigrant group in inner Sydney. The headquarters have a bust of Ned Kelly, a Eureka flag, and the whole place ‘had the look and feel of a cubby house for teenage boys’. The group take over Antonio’s front lawn as a site for protest where the skinheads and the old people with a Pauline Hanson placard stand against the Socialists and the Pacific guy with the big arms. More profoundly, Rose, Clare and Francis find themselves in opposition to Antonio who is increasingly lost in memories of the world he came from and no longer able to imagine himself in the world he is in. Perhaps that sense of confused nostalgia and consequent inability to engage with the present is the abiding metaphor of the book. Castagna delivers a vivid world of people, place, histories and incident, that is also an origin story for the resurgent white Australian nationalism underpinning the modern tragedies taking place on Manus Island and Nauru.

 

Di Cousens is a Tibetologist, poet and photographer who lives in Melbourne. Her academic publications are on Tibetan history and engaged Buddhism. Her poetry has been published in anthologies, journals and chapbooks. Her next publication is the poetry chapbook, the days pass without name, which will be launched in April.

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