By Cath MooreYoung AdultText Publishing

Metal Fish, Falling Snow

Dylan and her adored French mother dream of one day sailing across the ocean to France. Paris, Dylan imagines, is a place where her black skin won’t make her stand out, a place where she might feel she belongs.

But when she loses her mother in a freak accident, Dylan finds herself on a very different journey: a road trip across outback Australia in the care of her mother’s grieving boyfriend, Pat. As they travel through remote towns further and further from the water that Dylan longs for, she and Pat form an unlikely bond. One that will be broken when he leaves her with the family she has never known.

Metal Fish, Falling Snow is a warm, funny and highly original portrait of a young girl’s search for identity and her struggle to deal with grief. Through families lost and found, this own-voices story celebrates the resilience of the human heart and our need to know who we truly are.

Portrait of Cath Moore

Cath Moore

Born in Guyana, Cath Moore is of Irish/Afro-Caribbean heritage. Though raised in Australia she has also lived in Scotland and Belgium. Cath is also an award-winning screenwriter, teacher and filmmaker. She holds an MA in screenwriting and a PhD in Danish screenwriting practices. Metal Fish, Falling Snow is Cath’s first novel. She lives in Melbourne.

Judges’ report

Arresting and lyrical, Metal Fish, Falling Snow is a breathtaking, emotive debut novel. Fourteen-year-old Dylan is trying to make sense of her world which, as the story begins, has only consisted of a rural Australian town, a very close relationship with her single mother and an extraordinarily unique perspective. Her mother dies in an accident and before Dylan can make sense of anything, she finds herself on the road with Pat, her mum’s boyfriend; a man with a terrible addiction. 

Illuminated by the sharp cut of Cath Moore’s pithy prose, the uncomfortable lived experience of a mixed-race teenager is shown through seemingly innocent language and her bare-faced confusion at people’s actions. “Being white is easy. You don’t have to pretend to be anything else.” Dylan is an outsider, and through her perspective, readers are immersed in the endemic racism of 1990s Australia in a visceral, emotional way. You feel the taunts, the polite misunderstandings, the sense of not fitting in and not being right on a gut level. 

It’s an outback road adventure, coming-of-age story with pokies and pubs, Tina Arena sing-alongs, actual magic and colourful characters that also interrogates the intense turmoil that systemic and unconscious bias causes in People of Colour. The novel peels back the layers of big issues (racism, grief, poverty, loss, addiction, the families we find/make for ourselves) while the humour and crackle of the language help you see the joy in life as well as its often difficult truths.

Extract

Before I made a mess of it all, Mum and I were gonna sail back to her belonging. Back to where she’d been a happy little girl drinking hot chocolate out of a bowl and skipping to school with a big chunk of stinky cheese in her bag. Mum missed Paris so much it felt like she’d pulled a muscle in her heart and some days she would just curl up on the bed trying to remember what cold felt like. It was never really winter in Beyen—I couldn’t imagine snow falling from the sky. Each flake one-of- a-kind, like a frozen fingerprint that only lives between the sky and the earth.

We really were gonna make it happen. Get away from the heat and the flies and the non-belonging that was always making us feel heavy here in Beyen.

I know Mum is in the ground now, but I still need to take her home. Because we are more than our bodies.

Tiffany who runs Mysticize, the candle and crystal shop above the Chinese takeaway, told me Mum’s spirit was free now, so all I’m thinking about is getting her to the water. I’ve never seen the sea, felt the waves slap onto my back, saltwater spray across my face. The town pool in Beyen isn’t the same. Most of the time it’s only half-full and you can always tell when Ash Malone’s done a stinky wee in the deep end.

It’s a long way from Beyen to the ocean. It’s numbers ticking over and over on the dashboard and a whole lot of sleeps trying to dream yourself there. And I have, because it’s the only thing that matters if you want to stay real.

The land out here is a sea of dry dust. It covers the ground and stops living things from breathing. Nothing comes out of the earth and the only things that go in are bones and history, death and regret. That’s what the old men propping up the front bar say when they’re talkin’ themselves through another pint of stout.

 

Water is a miracle. What else can slip through your hands or crush you in two seconds flat? What else is soft and strong enough to carve patterns into stone? It regulates, generates and lubricates body parts we didn’t even know we had. Babies are seventy-eight per cent water when they are born. The older we get the less we have. Right now I’m only about fifty-five per cent. That’s all teenage girls have. But when I get to the sea, the salty air will fill my lungs up like a petrol pump and maybe my numbers will change. Mum used to say that everyone’s soul is connected to water because it’s a life force.

Even though Paris is a dirty city far from the ocean.

The sea is always a passage home.

Water is where this story begins and ends. A ques- tion chasing its tail for the answer. And what lies in the middle? Well I’ll save that for the car ride. Pat was right about that. It’s a long trip. He locks up the house, flicking pieces of dry paint off the porch. Stares at his hand, a few  red  specks caught under the nails. And I reckon that’s about all he’s  taking from the place.  If I squint hard enough, I can see Barry standing tall in the field at the bottom of Novis Lane. Now you might think I’m silly for naming a tree. Wouldn’t be the first time I’ve been called dumb as a stump, or smart as a stick. Duncan Glover used to call me a teabag: takes a while for things to filter through. But Barry’s not a regular tree; he’s where I used to go and hide myself. Barry knows I’m going now. He knows what happened too.

Pat catches my eyes on him and brushes something invisible from his pants.

‘You remember everything?’

Suddenly I’m afraid. Have I packed all the knowledge?

‘’Cause we’re not comin’ back,’ he says with a big fat full stop.

‘But I don’t know all the galaxies or what disease emphysema is.’

Pat rolls his eyes.

I’ve got it wrong again. People don’t always use words to say what they think. Sometimes it can be a long unblinking stare from the other side of Parker Street one Tuesday arvo that burns like a branding iron. ‘Go back’ is what those eyes mark on your shadow so you’re always in the wrong place no matter where you are. Right now I’m using that eye-talk with Pat. He hasn’t said anything about the boat so I don’t know if he thinks he’s coming too. I give him this cowboy glare that says ‘Sorry mate it’s not on the cards. Not even the four of spades. This is a family trip and you and me are not that.’

I know the boat will be made out of metal. Or wood. I just don’t know where it is yet. But I will feel it in my waters as Margie says about the rain that mostly always never comes. She’s eighty-nine and has lived in Beyen forever. This town is the beginning, middle and end of the whole world for her. Margie’s life map is very small but mine is just about to start. A single crack in the dry earth travelling east from the middle of nowhere to the wide, open sea.

The Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards shortlist