A novel that holds both searing beauty and brutality, Below Deck is a deep dive into what it means to be hurt and what it means to heal. This is author Sophie Hardcastle’s third book, following up a prior novel and a memoir. Each explores themes of personal growth in the face of traumatic experiences, marrying tragedy with what we learn about ourselves in moments that evoke guttural responses.
Sophie’s character Oli is introduced to the reader as a talented but lost economics student, stifled by expectation. Taken in, literally, by Mac, a weathered boat captain on Sydney harbour, she grows a deep friendship that forms not from shared experiences but from sharing a similar way of seeing the world. She is introduced to his long time friend, Maggie, who she shares the experience of synesthesia with, the three of them forming an unlikely nautical trio. With them, she learns to let go and trust herself, in the same way that sailing requires trust in the sea.
After her initial introduction to the ocean and sailing, Oli feels invincible. This sense of elation is short lived, accepting a job to sail with unfamiliar crewmates, experiencing violence and isolation hundreds of kilometres offshore. This experience, written in a way that only reveals the risk in hindsight, left me as a reader reeling, holding the dynamics of violence against women under a microscope in such a concentrated setting.
The effervescent literary debate arises here, should novels with such direct violence and trauma include a trigger warning? Advocates for this practice cite the potential for readers to feel traumatised without adequate time to emotionally prepare, while those against it suggest that this compromises the plot of novels, and the reaction of the reader is not the writer’s responsibility. I felt that it was opportune I was in the right emotional place to read Below Deck when I did, however I felt that if I was experiencing a trauma flare-up, I would have been unable to finish this novel. There’s no correct answer to how to proceed with this dilemma, but potential readers should prepare themselves for some particularly graphic sequences.
After this experience, Oli embarks on a journey different to her prior oceanic ventures, one of healing, navigating trauma responses and finding joy in the wake of unimaginable pain. Guided by her mentors Mac and Maggie, Oli works to regain the sense of freedom and possibility she worked so hard for. Sailing freed Oli from a career in economics she didn’t truly want, making her limitless and giving her the courage to pivot into the gallery curation path that never felt viable before. It’s special to see these moments of joy after pain, and is a sorely needed shift of trajectory after the first half of the novel.
A particular highlight of Hardcastle’s work is her incredible character-building skills. The cadence with which she conveys her characters intentions through small actions and dialogue that is soaked in subtext makes for enthralling characters that resonate deeply with the readers. Further, the moments that Hardcastle keeps just for Oli are delicate and gentle, and these moments of introspection paint a deep inner world. On the Coral sea, Oli describes the experience of seeing phosphorescence for the first time.
‘This underwater world. All silver and pink. Becoming and unbecoming in a single pulse.’
Split into four vignettes, Sea Garden, Sea Monsters, Desert, and Sea Ice, Hardcastle explores her protagonist Oli’s growth, survival, fear, and resurgence. Below Deck deserves praise as a hard-hitting novel that holds its weight under heavy subject matter, a rousing exploration of resilience and resurgence.