Here at Literature Works we love novels which champion place. Nothing makes us happier than a vivid description of a story’s landscape – something which really helps the character of a place to come alive. Enter then, Only the Ocean, the latest Young Adult novel by west-country writer, Natasha Carthew.
Location, dystopian near future Cornwall, certainly is a particular star in this novel. Dominated by the all-powerful ocean and governed by tensions between the tower folk and swampers, this Cornwall seems strangely distant and yet for all its wilderness and unpredictability, somehow intensely knowable.
It is against this harsh landscape that we meet the novel’s protagonist Kel Crow, a fifteen year old swamper who takes to the seas on a mission. Through Carthew’s skilful and mesmeric narrative style and excellently woven references to Cornish dialect and Syntax, the reader is swept away on a quest which quite literally, has a broken heart at its centre.
Kel is a girl on a mission: kidnap the girl, swap the girl, go to America for a life-saving operation. To her this seems perfectly reasonable, that is until she meets Rose: the girl. Forced into the close quarters of a small boat with nothing more than her baby and a bag full of supplies, Kel is forced to face some harsh truths. Not only does the journey she has undertaken seem endlessly fraught, but also she begins to question her belief system and everything she thought she knew. Challenged and pushed, she is confronted with a version of herself she never even knew. With characteristic wit and overwhelmingly biting sensitivity Carthew exposes the complexities of life in the bleakest of conditions and crafts a tale of hope, togetherness and love which will make illuminating reading for young adults and cross-over fiction enthusiasts alike.
Imagery, narrative and language combine to create a strikingly real portrait of a girl on the edge of life an insular insider, who, however unwittingly, becomes part of something more than herself – something she never knew she was seeking.
A triumphant novel, this is a perfect read for Autumn and for the times we find ourselves in. Refusing to shy away from difficult and complex story telling, Carthew has again crafted an unforgettable tale.
Only the Ocean is published by Bloomsbury.
Only the Ocean is set in a dystopian Cornwall which pits those who live in ‘The Towers’ against ‘The Swampers’. There’s something very Shakespearean about that plot. Was this at all an influence when you were writing the novel and why is ‘dystopian Cornwall’ such an important draw for you in your fiction?
No Shakespeare wasn’t an influence, I merely looked around me at society today and wondered what t would be like to give each side a little push in the opposite direction. There is a massive divide in this country between the haves and the have nots, I just imagined that split a little wider.
A semi-dystopian world is a fun place to roam as a writer, but is also a way of getting across a serious message. When writing Only The Ocean I didn’t have to imagine the country flooded out it was all around me, I want the reader to realise that the tipping point is close, the point where we can no longer go back, but if society acts fast we can still avoid a dangerous rise in temperature. The near-future world that exists in all my books I call Justopia, it’s just about to happen or has just happened, the slip into total chaos isn’t too far in the future.
The protagonist Kel suffers from a medical condition which causes her to take the ocean as part of a perilous plan. I couldn’t help wondering, how much of Kel’s condition is real and how much of her heart complaint comes from lack of love and from feeling that she is a ‘bad person’.
What Kel knows of her condition she has been told but people who are unreliable.
I wanted it to be something her family told her from childhood to keep her in check, have her living in fear so that she wouldn’t leave (because they need her for the drug-running business). The way she thinks about herself and her heart defect comes from lack of love and neglect from the start of her life, but at the point where we meet her in the book, it’s definitely linked to her lack of self-worth, in Kel’s mind her bad heart and being a bad person are connected.
Kel spends most of the novel on an ocean-bound quest: kidnap the girl, swap the girl to pay passage to America, get a life-saving operation. She is so driven by her plan – which she meticulous records – but meeting Rose – ‘the girl’ changes everything. Can you say a little bit about the impact Rose has on Kel’s outlook and the significance of the changes their relationship undergoes throughout the course of the novel?
Kel doesn’t plan on ‘the girl’ being an actual person. Up until meeting her Rose was just a word on a list of things to do. The impact Rose has on Kel is huge and changes Kel’s view of the world and her place in it from the moment she meets her. When I first had the idea for Only The Ocean it came to me as a love story between two young women set mostly at sea, so the build-up of their relationship from antagonistic to love had to be at the heart of Kel’s journey from the start, both physically and emotionally. The change is significant, but I don’t want to give too much away!
Kel’s understanding of her place in the world, of the realities of life seems so matter of fact and assured. She is a strong female protagonist who, whilst presenting initially as something of an antihero, ends up becoming a champion for the oppressed and down trodden by the novel’s end. How important was it for you that your readers be encouraged to think beyond what they might previously have experienced – to see that a person’s worth is about more than how much they have?
As a writer it’s really important for me to champion the underdog and for readers of Only The Ocean to see past their initial preconceptions about Kel, she is a good person, but it takes her time (and us as readers) to realise that. In a way her journey is our journey.
About her becoming a champion for the oppressed and down trodden, watch this space!
The ocean is a character in its own right in the novel. It carries the girls away from danger, then towards it and is responsible for one of the most heart-wrenching moments in the story. Can you tell us a bit about what draws you to the ocean in your novels?
I was born and raised in a village called Downderry on the south coast of Cornwall, so the ocean has always played a huge part growing up. From an early age I’d sit out on the rocks or climb the cliffs to write poetry and observe the changing seasons and the natural world around me, something I still do and a practice that has led me to write all my books outside.
As a reader I found myself on the journey alongside Kel and Rose – one where deep and meaningful understandings were forged about what it means to be working class, what is to struggle and suffer and about the need to look beyond the surface to see right to the heart of a person and their story. How intentional was this mirrored journey and did it feel like an important part of the narrative for you?
As a writer it’s the most important thing. It’s a job well done if a reader stops feeling like they are merely reading a story and through empathy and understanding, find themselves immersed in the journey.