Jessica Au's Cargo reviewed by Bel Woods

If Puberty Blues was one extreme of teenage beach culture, Cargo is another. It’s the loners; the kids who mature quietly at the fringes, drift, dip their toes into the social norms associated with those last teenage summers, but don’t necessarily embrace them. They carry with them trauma, dysfunction, and share indignities usually associated with adult life, and they wade in and around one another’s lives in a cinematic fashion, especially towards the latter end of the book, rarely intersecting, and maturing separately, despite their similarities.
Set during a summer in the 90s, Cargo (published by Picador) follows three reluctant characters: Frankie, Gillian and Jacob through that shift from teenager to young adult. With individual chapters devoted to the point of view of the character at hand, we hear the story of a small coastal town.
Through Gillian’s narrative, soaks a stain that you know will stay within the local folklore for years to come; through Jacob you see the ghost of a story pass and the boy who can hardly remember it; and through the lighter character of Frankie, you see that girl who grows as much from what she doesn’t experience, as from what she does.
Interestingly, this young adult novel has a strong literary feel. The language is in equal parts, sublime, sparse, and poetic. You read on for the moments of pin-point observation – the needle of the radio, the leftover warmth from Jacob’s brother’s hands on the wax block, the beehive glass on James’s house; you read on, similarly, for the language of these observations, like when Au has Gillian compare the water of her old home: “… a sluggish brown river that roped around town like a broken lasso” to the water of her new home: “The first time she’d seen the ocean – the real thing – they’d come up over a rise and slipped onto the highway parallel to the water”. There are so many golden lines throughout the pages, the kind that make you nod and sigh and wish you’d written them yourself.
Jessica Au may be at the beginning of her career, but this book doesn’t read like a first novel. There’s a real sense of power in the voices and a true appreciation that less is more. And although there are subtle movements in the story, a big part of this book is driven by these voices.
The narrative gains shape through the characters and their families and the community that surrounds them, but the reader is never stifled by plot or the thematic intentions of the author. In fact, when you’re feeling the pull of the wind-down, you don’t want it to tie up or end. But it does.
In Au’s skillful hands, you leave the novel feeling comforted, that everything is as it should be, regardless of whether it is or not.
Cargo is a true gift to the young adult world.


You have been reading Verity La’s Bel Woods.