Mel Hall’s debut novel, The Little Boat on Trusting Lane, is a tender and thoughtful reflection on the power of community in the process of healing.
The Little Mother Earth Ship is an alternative healing centre based out of a houseboat aboard stilts in the middle of a scrapyard on Trusting Lane. Richard, who runs the centre and the Circle of IEWA (Invisible Exit Wounds Anonymous), is supposed to provide spiritual sustenance and healing to his visitors. But, the boat is starting to fall apart, the council keep sending warning letters, and he’s somewhat stuck in the past.
Meanwhile his assistants Finn and August are dealing with their own problems and Richard seems oblivious to them. Finn’s medical condition has her questioning her identity and her beliefs as she navigates both her sexuality and the often-combative ground between alternative and traditional medicine. Meanwhile, August struggles with her loneliness between the frequent absence of her boyfriend Tom and her inability to connect with Finn. The tensions between Richard’s team are exacerbated by the arrival of ‘aggressive healer’ Celestiaa Davinaa.
While the alternative healing aspect of this story is strong, and Hall captures the essence of the movement perfectly without necessarily endorsing or discouraging it, the underlying message throughout is how community aids in healing. It is Richard, Finn and August’s relationships with each other and the people around them that cause them the most anxiety and pain as they each struggle to find their place in the world and meaning in their lives. Ultimately, it will take them coming together and trying to understand one another to be able to move forward.
Hall’s writing is clever; her style is perfectly suited to bringing out the anxieties in each of her characters, all while simultaneously weaving humorous social commentary. One example of this is Finn’s ruminations on her beautiful co-workers at the organic shop. Finn compares herself to the “superhuman” women who don’t wear makeup, don’t “shave, wax or epilate their underarms”, and for whom the hairy armpit declares: “I accept my natural state which just happens to be ludicrously hot.”
Similarly, Hall manages to build up Richard’s insecurities with gentle digs at his local noticeboard posts with their errant capital letters, excessive exclamation marks and extended ellipses; the IEWA creed he created in an acrostic format; and his Divine and Dateless username @RICH_NOT_YET_IN_HEAVEN. In using such a method to build her characters, Hall effectively softens what might otherwise be an overwhelmingly uncomfortable experience of anxiety.
The story can feel a bit slow-moving at times. Some segments are dedicated to discussion between Richard and Celestiaa about alternative healing practice. These can be difficult to follow if, like me, you’re not familiar with alternative healing lingo and theory. And, despite Celestiaa being the catalyst for change, she’s not fully introduced to stir things up until halfway through the book.
However, each character is given space to breathe and develop at their own pace. They are flawed in relatable ways—Finn is that horrible housemate who never cleans, August is sometimes louder and more intrusive than she means to be, and Richard is self-absorbed and flaky—but they are all still loveable in their own way.
Hall has found the perfect combination of humour and compassion as she explores difficult concepts of chronic illness, mental health, sexuality and belonging. There is a gentleness to her writing which invites the skeptic reader to consider why people seek alternative methods of healing and what there is to gain from the feeling of spirituality and community. The Little Boat on Trusting Lane is a tender and non-judgemental investigation into our relationships with each other and our own bodies.