Book review: Words in Deep Blue by Cath Crowley

(cover image courtesy Hodder Books)

It’s a rare thing indeed for great life changes to arrive without any trauma.

In fact, many times, the sense of disruption and loss can be profound and while we usually emerge out the other side, we are changed, making a return to business as usual, which no longer exists anyway if we’re honest, all but impossible.

That’s certainly the experience of Rachel who has returned to the town from which she left three years earlier altered by grief and dreading working with the guy she once had a crush on, book-loving Henry whose family owns the second-hand bookshop in which she has a job thanks to her aunt Lola.

In Cath Crowley’s perfectly-judged novel Words in Deep Blue, Rachel is struggling to move through, past or whatever it is we are supposed to do with grief, the death of her beloved younger brother Cal, a book-ish sort who love the sea, love reading and might be one of the people attracted to Henry’s younger sister George.

Rachel’s world is one defined by what she’s lost – her brother, her carefree relationship with her mother who is just as grief-stricken, if not more, than her daughter, Henry who didn’t respond to a heartfelt letter Rachel left in his favourite book three years earlier declaring her undying love and who is now in the arms of the emotionally indecisive Amy and any sense of purpose and direction.

She has also lost her love of swimming and the sea and has flunked out of Year 12, an unthinkable result for a young woman who had always excelled at her studies and whose scientific knowledge was one of the qualities that had made Henry her best friend bar none.

“My world seemed too small that night. The air on the way pressed on my skin and the inside of me pressed out. I’d never even hinted to Henry that I liked him, but with the clock ticking down to the end of the world, it became the thing I had to do before that last second – and the Letter Library was the perfect way to do it.” (P. 14)

Encouraged by her aunt Lola, her mum’s quirky, headstrong, freewheeling sister and her grandmother’s black sheep daughter, to move back to Melbourne, Rachel is hoping that she’ll find a way to move past her grief.

But the loss of someone so vital and special and close to her as Cal is not something you just get over and try as she might, Rachel finds herself mired in her grief to the extent that she is a changed person, someone Henry barely recognises and with whom he struggles to reconnect.

There’s a sense, of course, all through Words in Deep Blue that Rachel and Henry will find their way back to each other but Crowley deftly detours here and there to that expected narrative destination, exploring along the way what it feels like to have life change beyond all recognition.

While it’s not on the same scale as that of Rachel, Henry is facing big life changes of his own as his family contemplates selling the bookshop which has been his home, his livelihood and his reason for being in many ways. (The bookshop is almost a character in itself, a place where Rachel and Henry are happiest, where all kinds of people write to each other via notes tucked in books in the Letter Library and where members of the community find a welcoming home.)

It’s loss, necessitated by personal and financial concerns over which Henry only has limited control – though the family is close enough that he gets a vote on whether the sale happens or not – is a substantial one and while it might pale in comparison to the loss of a sibling, something Henry readily acknowledges when Rachel comes clean about Cal’s death, it is nevertheless devastating for the young man who is almost as in love with the written word as he is in love with Rachel (though it takes him a while to admit to this fact).

Cath Crowley (image courtesy Pan Macmillan Australia)

Words in Deep Blue might sound like a book mired in the excruciating pain of grief and what has been or might be catastrophically lost, but while it is honest in its depiction of how great loss of any kind can change you and transform your life beyond all recognition, it is also full to the brim with hope, the idea that the things we love, and those we love, though temporarily in abeyance, can save us in the end.

While there is a fairytale rom-com quality to proceedings, which provides a delightful element to the book’s more bleak moments, Words in Deep Blue keeps it real in some crucially important ways.

It never once, for instance, pretends that grief is something easily solved and quickly dispensed with, making it clear that though Rachel and Henry might find their way back to each other, this won’t be the Hollywood solution to all their problems.

Were that the case, then we would all be rushing to fall in love with those we’ve left behind or returning to places that once meant something in the hope that that connection would be revived and revive and restore us in the process.

But life, alas, doesn’t work that way and nor does grief which must be worked through in its own way, if it is ever fully worked through at all which, if we’re really being true to ourselves, never really goes away, only ever diminishing in its hold on our life.

“A summer storm starts. She looks up and the over at me. ‘I haven’t told anyone here in Gracetown. Please don’t tell anyone either. I came back to forget about it for a while.

I wonder how she could forget about it, a thing like that. And I wonder how she can go on living if she doesn’t.'” P. 131)

That Rachel does eventually emerge out the other side makes sense but that she does in her own way and time, and not necessarily as a result of being with Henry again, though that plays a huge role, rings very true, imbuing the delightful romanticism of Words in Deep Blue with an authenticity that feels hard won and just like life itself.

The novel is in many ways a delightful mix of the aspirational and the hopeful and the grief-stricken and the painful, a reminder that life may take a great deal from us but that our love of many things can often be the path back to what we lost, or at least, whatever forms its replacement.

In the case of Rachel and Henry, who have many obstacles to get over and issues to resolve, what or who they love is each other, but every bit as importantly, it’s their love of words, of learning and knowledge and their eventual willingness to take a second chance that makes all the difference.

Words in Deep Blue is all about being brave enough, even in the worst of circumstances where hope feels like a sick joke with no apparent punchline, to see that there is a way forward and to cling to it even when everything inside you mocks the very idea that it exists at all.

Full of heart and love, hope, laughter and lots of sadness too, Words in Deep Blue is a literal love letter to love, truth, and the very best things in life, an antidote to the idea that grief takes and steals everything irrevocably and nothing good can come from life’s changes, and one that, with writing that is winsome, fun, real and heartfelt, reminds us of the fact that while great change may bring trauma, it can also, given time, bring healing too.

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