“What made you want to become a nurse?” This is the question at the heart of Maria Papas‘ TAG Hungerford Award Winning novel, Skimming Stones. Following two timelines, one in the present and one in memory, the novel follows protagonist Grace as the events of her workday force her to remember a particularly tumultuous time in her family’s life.
Grace is a paediatric oncology nurse, and spends her days helping with the treatment of children who have cancer. She has a special connection to these patients and their families – particularly with their siblings – as her younger sister Emma was diagnosed with Leukaemia when Grace was thirteen and Emma was four. While Emma and Grace had always been close (they are sometimes described as twins born nine years apart), Emma’s illness necessitates a split in the family. Emma and the girls’ mother spends months in Perth at the hospital, while Grace is left with her father in Lake Preston.
Grace’s father and mother’s relationship was already in trouble before Emma’s illness and the distance between them only serves to widen the rift. When Emma and her mother return home, the girls’ mother is forced to clean up the mess that her husband has made of the house just to make the environment a safe one for a child with a compromised immune system, and eventually, Grace’s father is asked to leave for good.
Grace associates her mother’s love with her own Greek heritage, and in the modern timeline often muses on the way that her connection to the Greek language no longer comes naturally. This serves as a metaphor for the distance she feels from her mother’s love as more and more of her parents’ energy was needed in caring for Emma.
In the present day timeline, as Grace is needing to make a decision about her future with a man called Nate, her family history takes on a deeper significance. Nate, like Grace, is the sibling of a cancer patient, and they met in the hospital. Now, many years later, they have met again and begun and affair. Nate is married and already has a child, but he and Grace are drawn to one another in a way that Grace thinks his wife probably would not understand.
But it is not the story of Grace and Nate that drives this novel along. At times, this seems like an afterthought. Nate is present only at the very beginning and end of the novel, and it is the parallel’s of Grace’s work in the present, and her experience of seeing her sister receive treatment in the past that carry the most weight.
Skimming Stones is a short novel at just over 200 pages, but it is a slow, contemplative read. Papas’ writing is gentle and has an emotional subtlety that is moving without seeming manipulative. She lets the subject matter speak for itself. This is not the shiny Paediatric Oncology ward of a John Green novel, but something much more grounded in experience.
If you like literary fiction and good, sharp writing, then this one is for you.
THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Maria Papas’ Skimming Stones is out now from Fremantle Press. Grab yourself a copy from Booktopia HERE.