Reviewing: Only the Ocean by Natasha Carthew

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This book has one of the most beautiful covers I’ve ever seen, and I truly wanted to love it, but I didn’t. Only The Ocean follows Fifteen-year-old Kel Crow as she agrees to kidnap a girl in exchange for enough drugs to buy herself a heart operation. That’s the simple version.

“If she could just get to town before anyone noticed she was gone, before Dad had time to realise the gate was still bust-broke and that the barbed wire had come down enough for the girl and baby to get gone. If she could just walk the walk into town, keep her eyes away from the riding water and find the man who’d met her and liked her enough to hire her for the job.”

The book started out promisingly, presenting a world where rising oceans have created a split between the wealthy – living in raised, covered towers – and the ‘swampers’ down below. Unlike many a set up like this, there wasn’t a huge amount of info-dumping at the beginning of the novel which was refreshing. I thought perhaps more information would be introduced gradually as the book went on, only to finish the story wondering a great many things and having answers for very few of them. At one point a man mentioned that the ocean was getting warmer, and Kel noted this as well, and I thought this might culminate in some big realisation that something was happening to the planet but…nothing. It was never mentioned again. Unfortunately this sort of thing seemed to be a running theme in this book.

“It bothered Kel that she might have weakness cracking within, but if she hadn’t taken the baby its life would have become her life, lived all over again. Even a stupid baby didn’t deserve that.”

This book dealt with a LOT of heavy subjects in a relatively short period of time. Drug running, kidnapping, sexual abuse of minors (of which there are no explicit scenes but it’s evident this happened and to whom), self-harm (of which there are scenes), sexuality, motherhood and the distribution of wealth. While I appreciate books that present difficult topics in ways that open them up to further discussion I felt that this book – perhaps due to its brevity – seemed to start a lot of conversations and never finish them. Kel spends the book carrying around a baby that is for the majority of the time referred to simply as ‘the baby’, a baby which we find out early on is her own. While we do see her come to terms with the presence of this child in her life and her position in the world as his mother, and we see her ignore the ‘bad’ that created him and focus only on the good parts, the parts that she gave him, this is really the only of these issues that gets a solid form of resolution. Does Kel really have a heart defect? How did the towers come about? What was the big revolt about? Why is the sea getting warmer? Who gave all these children weapons?

So many questions.

“Before all this. I wanted to die just because I didn’t want to live.”

“I don’t want to die any more, Kel, don’t you think that’s funny?”

These issues aside, I did massively appreciate some elements of the book. There’s a gradual build towards a same-sex relationship that is done very well, and with great tenderness and awareness that children who have been abused – after all both girls are both FIFTEEN and so are very much still children – or neglected might have trouble identifying love of any kind, especially romantic. I liked Kel’s transition from almost a complete lack of empathy to a very caring, resourceful person, and Rose realising that while she may have been bored in her tower at least she was fed and clothed, warm and dry, not a mother already.

“Out there in the core of the nowhere ocean it was as if the world and all its worries and wars had fallen away and what was left was the yawning cavity where nothing existed…”

There was some beautiful writing in this book, and different ways of speaking and acting were done exceedingly well. It was a book that brought up some heavy topics and presented a world where the ocean rules all – a world that isn’t too far from existing if the sea level keeps rising. It was just missing a few things for me, a few answers, a few scenes of something that wasn’t based in a dinghy off the coast of Cornwall.

Overall rating: 3 books out of 5

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