New Zealand Seaweek: Nikki Crutchley’s Ode, To The Sea

2021 Ngaio Marsh nominee Nikki Crutchley turns the idea of the idyllic beach lifestyle on its head in her new book To The Sea, in which the ocean becomes a brooding entity, demanding ritual and punishment. With this book Crutchley explores how far people might go to protect their lifestyle.

To the Sea

"To the sea!" 

Suffering from a head injury in a boating accident which he refuses to have treated, Hurley becomes an iron-willed father and husband, moving his family to live on an isolated clifftop; renaming them all with names for the sea. 

Irrevocably tying his life to the sea that spared him, Hurley eschews the modern way of life to live near it; above the place he washed up after the accident. Without consulting his wife, he sells his accountancy business to live off land and sea at Iluka.  

Guarded by dense pine plantings, cut off from the world by the cliffs, no one leaves or enters Iluka without Hurley's consent. When he calls his family to the sea, it is either to perform ritual or punishment - both of which can be painful.

Those who oppose, disobey, or try to leave Iluka are punished. 

Story-driven, with a really ominous setting, this story quickly drew me into the depths of its sinister embrace. It's the kind of book you can't put down, and long to get back to.

"I felt my loyalties stretching, and wondered when I'd break."

Told from the point of view of the women - Hurley's wife Tina, now Ashera, his daughter Anahera, and his granddaughter Ana, Crutchley's text examines the ways in which loyalty can be exploited and manipulated.

Her characters struggle with their love for their home and the imperative to obey Hurley versus their need for independence and freedom of movement. How this influences their decisions and where these will take them will astound readers. 

I love the many names for the ocean in this story, and the setting is incredible: The view from the clifftops over the wild ocean always threatens rain. The clifftops are crumbling and the family must climb down a precarious ladder to the secluded beach.

Threats abound from the environment, but it's people from outside that seem to be the biggest threat. For Iluka and the sea conceals secrets.

Apparently burying bodies up to the neck was once practised by pirates, says Crutchley, not children playing games.

This is a brilliantly sinister story. I'm hoping to see Nikki Crutchley in the running again, for the 2022 Ngaio Marsh Awards, held in September.

New Zealand Seaweek begins runs 5 to 13 March.

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