To the Sea by Nikki Crutchley – 2021

A man feels blessed to have survived a disaster. He and his devoted daughter make a new start – moving their family to a beautiful wild seaside property. Starting afresh with new names, they create a world where love of family and home will keep them safe. OR … A man with a brain injury and a young traumatised girl confine their family to a remote dangerous location. They create a world of cruelty and fear – a world held together by dark family secrets. Two perspectives on a place called Iluka.

In To the sea, Crutchley explores the motivations behind inexplicable behaviours. Why would a mother agree to her daughter being constantly physically punished? Why do people, usually women, stay in abusive situations? Why does abuse often become intergenerational? How can society turn a blind eye to suffering? The Iluka family patriarch leaves his job as an accountant, moves his family to Iluka, adopts a new name, Hurley, and re-names his wife and two children, all their names relating to the sea. Ostensibly, his intentions are to provide his family with safety and security. Iluka has a pine plantation to source wood for Hurley’s woodworking, land for cows for milk and butter, a large vegetable patch, and bees for honey. The children will be home-schooled. They will be practically self-sufficient.

The story of the family on Iluka is told alternately from the points of view of Anahita, Hurley’s daughter, in the past, and from that of Ana, Anahita’s daughter, in the present.  “We have our stories, our beliefs here at Iluka” – the reader gradually discovers the truth about these stories and beliefs. We read of them coming into existence, and of the truth behind them. Although extreme, To the sea is believable. The family identity is based on Hurley’s best friend having died in the storm that Hurley survived. It is grounded in the fact that Asherah, Dylan and Anahita’s mother, committed suicide, not recognising the gifts that Iluka has to offer. These tragedies bind the family together.

The family members rarely have to venture from Iluka: “Remember, we will always protect you. The only thing out there for you is loneliness and pain.” And when they do venture out, Anahita and her brother Dylan, and then later Ana, do indeed encounter evil and cruelty. Anahita can remember the horror of being assaulted by a man on the way home from school before they moved. When young Cleo and her alternative lifestyle mother, Wanda, move onto a neighbouring property, Dylan discovers the existence of awful abuse. The local townsfolk are judgemental and nasty. Ana encounters a neighbour Brent, who she finds frightening.

“You don’t understand. It’s not a punishment. It’s a reminder.” Alongside the freedom and safety of Iluka, are the rules. Hurley is an imposing man, and controls his family with taps of his fingernail “grown especially long just for this purpose”. The family have adopted a practice of ‘self’-harm, finding release in the pain. The punishments are brutal, but Anahita and Ana both find solace in the fragrances, vistas, and feel of Iluka. Ana loves the non-judgemental nature of her environment. The girls, and then women, are told to view the punishments as a reminder that they are part of the family, part of Iluka.

There are people around who have the opportunity to intervene to make sure all members of the family are safe. But the police choose to listen to the man rather than the woman when they are called to a situation. A government agency worker just accepts the pragmatic boundaries of her job. The locals find it more enjoyable to be mean than sympathetic and caring … When Dylan’s friend Marina joins the Iluka family, she starts a business offering accommodation at Iluka as a retreat for artists. Ana sees Nikau arrive, he is a photographer and, unusually for the visitors, not far from her in age. It transpires he is a journalist – he takes an interest in Ana, but it is more an interest in getting a good story than redressing wrongs or helping her.

To the sea looks at generational relationships. The reader initially assumes a clear start to the madness – with a clarity around what is right and wrong. But it is not that simple. The more you learn, the more complex it becomes, the more you discern hidden motives, and buried crimes. Ana has so little experience of people that, like the reader, she does not know who to trust. And that is one of the messages of the book; by and large the characters are all untrustworthy. Ana is on her own: “I was terrified of discovering the truth.”

Ana was born at Iluka, and has accepted it as part of her being. The sea: “[t]he constant, comforting sound was like my own breath; inhale, water surging in, exhale, water dragging back out”. She feels empathy with trees that are logged. Anahita shores up Hurley’s views, but Ana starts to investigate them. The tension in the book comes from the presence of an unpredictable, domineering man, and from not knowing how Ana will react to finding out the truth behind her family’s solidarity. And she has the determination to find out – there is tightly controlled Internet access at Iluka, so she does have a way to get outside information.

Iluka, the location, is a character in its own right in the book. It is safety, but it is also danger. There is a treacherous ladder leading down to the beach and the sea, to the bay named after Hurley. There is constant erosion eating the cliff’s edge. Anahita saves Ana from a slip when she was young – Ana has the opportunity to do the same for her mother years later. And erosion is another way to unearth secrets … The sea is a constant presence impinging on the characters’ views of the world – Anahita sees a girl in town as one of “the sirens Hurley told her about who lured sailors to their deaths”. Dangers are everywhere and all lead back to the sea. “To the sea” is a dreaded command, and also a form of tribute.

To the sea has a many-layered plot, with the parallel time frames adding even more depth to the unfolding story. The reader is constantly learning new aspects to what they already know, and having other aspects undermined. Crimes and perpetrators pile on like ripples from a dropped stone – but where is the centre? The visceral descriptions of Iluka give the book an almost mythological slant – where those who reside there are wonderfully bewitched but also cursed, doomed to sacrifice all responsibility to the vagaries of the sea. To the sea is a tense, looming, slow-burning read, with revelations right up to the final page!   

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