No More Boats
by Felicity Castagna
$26.95 pb, 232 pp, 9781925336306
No More Boats is Felicity Castagna’s newest work since Small Indiscretions (2011), a collection of short stories, and her award-winning novel, The Incredible Here and Now (2013), for young adults. This versatile writer depicts a plausible community set in Sydney’s inner west in 2001 and an ageing Italian migrant whose life is falling apart and whose crises coincide with the Australian government’s obsession with secure borders. From the book’s first pages, we sense that Antonio Martone will soon reach a point of exasperation and will act out his frustrations with a gun. His actions will coincide with the political manipulation of the MV Tampa and the attack on the Twin Towers. What leads to that moment is the heart of this story
Chapters are devoted to each of the four Martones: Antonio, Rose, and their adult children, Clare and Francis. The third-person narration moves seamlessly through their interconnected lives and from past to present, involving other characters who will be instrumental in the story.
Our anti-hero and his dreams
Photo credit: Luci Callipari-Marcuzzo (Luci Callipari-Marcuzzo, Buon viaggio – Nonno Francesco’s suitacases, 2011)
Antonio migrated to Australia by boat in 1961 and made strong connections at the Villawood Migrant Hostel. His best friend, Nicolai Molatzzo, assuages his anxieties and helps him to find work as a builder. Antonio meets and later marries Rose. Australian-born and raised by a depressed British single mother, she is open to losing herself in the attentions of an exotic foreigner. The couple buy a block of land in the developing suburb of Paramatta. Antonio is sure he is living the future he was hoping for when he left impoverished Calabria:
‘All he wants is this, his own patch of land, this moment in the afternoon; the future to keep coming and coming.’
Concrete and confusion
Manifestations of the migrant dream, though clichéd, can reflect an entire group’s values and means of comfort. They turn up in Antonio’s trust in bricks and mortar, his concrete front yard, a serious fruit and veggie garden, and a statue of Saint Francis beside an image of his deceased father on the mantel. However, the life that Antonio has constructed for himself and his family is vulnerable. A workplace injury forces Antonio into early retirement, but his certainties were dissipating long before this incident. ‘Nico and Antonio … were the last of their kind’, workers whose building skills, precision, and attention to detail are no longer important in a society that wants McMansions and contractors willing to build them. His boss, who is rapidly becoming wealthy, uses the cheapest materials available and pressures his employees to get the job done within sixty days. Antonio, weakened, prowls the western suburbs at night, staring at houses without eaves in soulless suburbs, all the while noticing a changed social landscape that is constantly reiterated in the media, especially by ‘the dull man’ who declares, ‘We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.’
Photo credit: google photos
So obsessed is Antonio about the elusive future that he has never provided his children with a comprehensive view of his own sacrifices and struggles. Nor has Rose, whose early hardships, shared with others, might have instilled in their offspring a sense of generational progress – not the rootlessness that characterises their lives.
Photo credit: Carolina Farina Routes Agency (Luci Callipari-Marcuzzo, Tracing Threads of the Past Grembiule)
This is an important book
Castagna is canny in showing Antonio’s demise: the way that an unreasonable and culturally confused person can be preyed upon by shrewd political agendas and reactionary interest groups. No More Boats offers us a way of understanding the contradiction of one migrant turning against others. This is an important book. Thankfully, publishers like Giramondo have the courage and acuity to uncover stories that investigate the complexities and inconsistencies that are part of contemporary Australian society.