Skimming Stones (Maria Papas, Fremantle Press)
Thrombolites—living rocks made from microbes—exist in only a few places on Earth, including Lake Clifton, south of Perth. Here, the thrombolites are thousands of years old and incredibly fragile. This unique area forms the integral backdrop of this moving debut novel, which won the City of Fremantle T A G Hungerford Award for an unpublished manuscript. The story centres on paediatric nurse Grace, who is triggered by a patient into reliving the impact of her younger sister’s childhood leukaemia battle. Via Grace, Papas explores the illness journey through a sibling’s eyes: the abandonment, the worry, the yearning for attention and the bonds made with other families in similar situations. As a lonely child when her mother and sister are in hospital, Grace attaches to a local art-loving couple who act as substitute parents. She is also a witness to the mismatch between her parents as their marriage crumbles and her father fails to cope with the situation. Haunting and poetic in places, this novel deftly illuminates the looping effect of childhood illness and trauma on future lives. The landscape of the lake and beach is beautifully etched, evoking a childhood spent in nature, and the family’s Greek heritage adds an interesting layer. However, for this reader, who was nonetheless entranced from the opening page, Grace’s interior monologues grew a little claustrophobic. Skimming Stones is recommended particularly for those interested in family relationships, natural settings, Australian fiction and new voices.
Joanne Shiells is a writer, editor, English teacher and former bookseller.