Monday, 23 December 2013

The Elusive Language of Ducks by Judith White (Vintage 2013)

I’ve always been quite fond of ducks; dead and alive.  My dad shot ‘em, and when I was a kid I helped pluck ‘em.  I was fascinated with their innards; their long strings of intestines all balled up inside that I pulled out of their carcass into a hole dug in the backyard.  These days I appreciate them alive.  When I was a student in Dunedin I used to like walking through the gardens.  I would listen to the ducks quaking amongst themselves; they would waddle along the paths alongside the pensioners from the council flats by the River Leith who were making their way to New World by cutting through the gardens.  Hannah, the lead character in White’s novel, also likes ducks, well, one in particular that her husband gives her when she is grieving for her mother who died recently.  As the muscovy duck grows it becomes a reflection of Hannah’s emotional wellbeing, she also projects her feelings onto the duck, and at times the duck talks to Hannah.

The novel is about the reevaluation of life that comes after bereavement.  Hannah questions her love for her husband, Simon.  She relates the beginning of their relationship and marriage, and deliberates the fact that they didn’t have children.  Hannah also reflects on other people she has loved over her life, such as her mother, and the increasingly fraught relationship she has with her sister.  The novel meanders through the emotional mind field of the past which brings along a few surprises, revelations of things not previously acknowledged or said, and how a duck comes between Hannah and the other people she cares for.  There is humour in the book as well.  The duck tries to ‘have relations’ with Hannah and she fights the duck away.  She finally resorts to buying white pillows for the duck to…um…release some tension. 

Because of the content, there isn’t a huge narrative drive with the book, rather you’re reading to find what amends Hannah can make with the past and those around her, and what decisions will shape her future, how she will disperse her anxiety.  The structure is fragmented; sections within the chapters are very short which takes a bit to settle into to, and I didn’t feel completely engaged with the novel until I was three quarters through.  But I think this has to do with my input as a reader rather than any misgivings with the writing.  I feel like you have to be at the same life stage as Hannah to fully engage with her emotional wellbeing and anxieties to be able to appreciate how she sieves through her past.

The novel is ultimately about choosing what you have to let go of in order to move on.  The book is very contemporary – it details the Christchurch earthquakes (Simon was on a contract down there during the February quake), which triggers the reader’s own memories, and reflections, and also reflects Hannah’s emotional turmoil.  If I had any criticism it would be that there were perhaps too many descriptions about duck’s feathers, but then again, I’ve perhaps just plucked a few too many.
Have a happy holiday season my fellow book geeks.  I’m ‘down south’ for the week with family, and will be back to book geekery in the New Year.

Sunday, 15 December 2013

Little Sister (Vintage 2012) by Julian Novitz
Little Sister is not a recent release but I saw it at the library and because I don’t know a great deal about Novitz , I thought I would check it out.  And part of the mission of this blog is for me to get around to reading the things I should have read.  Novitz has previously published a short story collection, My Real Life and Other Stories (2004), and a novel Holocaust Tours (2006).  He doesn’t appear to be around the NZ literary scene lately, his NZ Book Council profile doesn’t even list his latest novel.  Little Sister revolves around Shane, Will and Eileen who attend High School together and form an intense friendship.  The novel gives each friend a turn at relating their perspective about their relationship, and about events that revolve around and lead up to the death of Eileen’s father.
There are lots of literary allusions in the book.  Shane is interested in the Canterbury Tales and Le Morte d’Arthur that his teacher, Mr N, talks about in English class, in particular Arthur and his sword Excalibur.  The sword represents a masculine power while the sheath represents the feminine: “The sexual imagery, Mr N said, should not be lost on us here.”   Such is Shane’s enthusiasm for all things medieval that Shane joins Eileen at Medieval Faires, and even buys himself a replica sword.  Initially, Shane just keeps the sword in his room, then he starts posing with it in front of the mirror, and then he starts to take it out with him.  Eventually, he loses the sword’s sheath as his relationship with Eileen intensifies.

 While Shane enjoys medieval literature, Will tells Eileen that he wants to be a writer when he leaves school, though it’s a lie, he hasn’t written a thing except school exercises but he finds some satisfaction in the identification as a writer.  Will’s narrative takes place in a police cell where he is waiting to tell his side of the story to the detectives.  Will imagines himself in a cop/detective story as he rehearses his story in his head.

 Eileen, as seen through Shane and Will’s eyes, is complicated.  She was initially dating Will but then moves onto Shane while insisting that the three of them still remain friends and hang out at Will’s flat in town.  Eileen seems manipulative, and is a girl that other girls don’t like.  She relates a history of sexual abuse, and there are questions as to whether she is fabricating other elements of her life, such as the fact that she has a younger sister that neither Will nor Shane have ever seen.

Readers hear Eileen’s perspective ten years after high school when she is living in Melbourne and teaching theatre classes.  At the university a girl is following Eileen and someone who refers to herself as Eileen’s sister is calling her flat.  The essence of the novel is for the reader to decide whether Eileen’s sister exists, and whether Eileen is a victim or femme fatale in her father’s death.  At one point Eileen discusses her boyfriend’s detective novels, saying that his female characters are, “all absent somehow.  Either they’re physically absent, like the detective’s ex-wife or the damsel’s-in-distress, or they’re emotionally absent, like the ruthless femmes fatales you wheel out as plot devices, always with their scheming plans but no internal lives.  Absent women all the time."   It is up to readers to decide whether and/or how Eileen is absent in the novel.

The narrative is a mystery, of sorts, even though we know who did it early on in the book.  This relates to another literary reference in the novel.  Eileen is fixated with Eliot’s play Murder in the Cathedral and notes that there “is no mystery to the murder in the cathedral: it is performed right there, in front of our eyes, on the stage.”  In Eliot’s play Thomas Becket, a priest, is willing to die for his faith.  Becket is presented with four tempters who question whether he wants to die for his faith or whether he desires to become a martyr.  When the priest has been killed by the four knights, they each come forward and present their justifications for the killing.  Novitz has followed Eliot’s structure for his novel in presenting four justifications for Eileen’s dad’s death (Mr N gets the last word).  Eliot’s play calls on the audience to act as detectives, as readers of Novitz’s novel are, and the characters are portrayed through their individual moral crises.

I initially thought that perhaps there are just too many literary references in Novitz’s novel, but the inclusions are all explained within the text so I didn’t feel like an outsider trying to grapple with specialist knowledge about medieval literature, or Eliot.  And, a lot of the action does take place in an English class so the inclusion does make sense.  The novel successfully portrays the intensity of friendships that can form in high school, and how those relationships affect the rest of your life.

Sunday, 8 December 2013

In the Memorial Room by Janet Frame (Text Publishing 2013)
Janet Frame’s novel, written in 1974 and released this year, is about writer Harry Gill who has been awarded the Watercress-Armstrong Fellowship in Menton where New Zealand poet Margaret Rose Hurndell wrote four of her works.  Harry travels to Menton and is greeted by literary hangers-on who had some connection to Hurndell and wish to keep her memory alive through the Fellowship.  Harry’s welcoming committee suggest that he write in the Memorial Room which is a shrine to Hurndell.  However, Harry prefers not to because he feels like the memorial room is a grave that keeps Hurndell’s death alive rather than her work. 

The literary hangers-on want a piece of Harry, each of them offers to house him during his stay.  At one point, Harry notes that writers have a sense of nothingness which enables them to accommodate characters in their mind: “To this you reply that it is he [the writer] who must enter the minds of his characters?  Certainly, but where shall he house them while he enters their minds.”   By playing on the words ‘house’ and ‘accommodate’ it seems that the literary groupies want to enter the mind of the writer, rather than allowing the writer to house his characters. 

Harry’s relationship with the local literary community is shown to threaten Harry’s perception and inhibit his ability to write.  Harry worries about his sight while on the Fellowship, he fears he is going progressively blind, and then wakes up one morning and discovers he is deaf.  The doctor tells Harry that, “in the company of certain people, you are on the point of vanishing”, and then later tells him that his physical afflictions will only last the duration of his Fellowship.  The attention Harry receives while on the Fellowship threatens to render him invisible.

While the book satirises literary groupies, the image of the writer is also poked with a big stick.  Michael, the son of one of the Fellowship founders, looks more like a writer than Harry does and is talked about as a young Hemingway.  Even at the function to celebrate Harry as the next Fellowship recipient it is Michael who is photographed and shakes hands with the mayor rather than Harry.  Michael is the mimicry of a writer that appears to be the ‘real’ thing, but Harry doubts whether Michael’s appearance matches his talent.

 Language is also a prominent theme in the novel, as you would expect from Frame.  Harry relates the story of an Englishman in Menton who vowed to speak “only in nouns and verbs” and “All references to emotion were excluded because they could not be described accurately.”  Harry notes that because the Englishman’s speech and writing lacked abstract words “’truth’ was excluded in the search for the truth.”  Language is shown to have the potential to hide and reveal reality, or at least an individual’s subjective perspective of reality.

The book is funny, not in a snorting laughter way, but it is a satire with an edge of irony.  If Katherine Mansfield, which of course the Menton Fellowship in Frame’s book refers to, is the Grandmother of New Zealand fiction, Janet is potentially the mother.  Perhaps releasing the book after her death means that Frame can poke fun at the way writers are remembered, how they are memorialised, and how as readers and literary groupies we try and house writers in our collective imaginations. 

Sunday, 1 December 2013

The Fall of Light by Sarah Laing (Vintage 2013)
Rudy, the lead character in Sarah Laing’s novel, is an architect whose wife and kids have left him because of his workaholic habits.  Despite the long hours his business is not being awarded new projects because Rudy is struggling to execute what he considers are his clients conservative proposals; he wants to design signature buildings to make a name for himself.  When the clients decline Rudy’s extravagant designs he makes models of the structures in his studio.  On top of all this, Rudy comes off his Vespa and the accident nearly kills him.
The extravagance of the buildings he designs seems to relate to Rudy’s fantasy life, a dreamscape he has retreated to because his real life is quickly unravelling.  Everything has become about surfaces, about how they look, rather than being practical spaces for people to live and work in.  Like in Pip Adam’s book, the buildings (or in this case model buildings) seem to act as a projection of the self, how Rudy would like to present himself to the world. 
As Rudy slowly recovers from his accident he hangs out with his childhood friend Greg, and meets his neighbour Laura who is pregnant.  Laura got kicked out of her restrictive life with the Brethren when she was 16 because she had a child out of wedlock, a child she was made to give up.  Laura’s story triggers an emotional response from Rudy because he was adopted, but up until his accident he had not seriously entertained contacting his birth parents.  His relationship with Laura gives Rudy an insight into what it is like for a mother who has to give up her child.  Throughout the novel Rudy gradually confronts his adoption, feelings of abandonment, and his need to belong.
While the narrative is unfolding, amongst the words there are illustrations that don’t merely reflect the action but are part of the story.  The drawings show Rudy’s dreams which are pertinent to the story and project his subconscious.  It is a very clever way of showing the subconscious thoughts in a first person narrative where the character is not initially expressive about his feelings.  It is a unique feature and one that blends in seamlessly with the text without seeming like gimmick. 
What is nice about the narrative is how it shows how people come into your life when you need them.  Okay, I know the novel is constructed, but I like the characterisation of Laura and her openness, and how willing she is to help Rudy, and how in turn he helps her when her child is born.  Laura and Rudy are such contrasting characters, Laura is a hippy and Rudy is a middle-class snob, but they have fundamental issues in common, that of adoption and abandonment, they come together and in some ways they are a mother and son who adopt each other.  I like how they make a community, and how they both have a sense of belonging.
Usually when I read a story to review, certain parts of the book will trigger a response in me and I start thinking of things to write for the review.  I didn’t with this book.   I initially thought that Rudy was a bit of a wanker, to be frank, but he loses his wankerism and becomes likeable as the narrative progresses and he starts to share more of his feelings.  The illustrations are also initially thought provoking but ultimately explained in the text.  As much as I enjoyed the relationships in the novel, and having a front row seat to Rudy’s midlife crisis, it’s not a novel I can imagine having an impassioned argument about.  Perhaps it’s because everything is explained in the narrative, there are no silences to deliberate. 

Friday, 22 November 2013

The Virgin & the Whale by Carl Nixon (Vintage 2013)
Nixon’s third novel interweaves three narrative strands.  The first is the narrator/author commenting on the mechanics of storytelling, the second concentrates on Elizabeth - a nurse who has returned to New Zealand from the War (WW1) with a child in tow but minus her husband who is missing presumed dead.  Elizabeth is employed by Mrs Blackwell, a member of one of the ‘first’ families to settle in Mansfield (aka Christchurch), to look after her husband who has returned from the front without his memory.  The final narrative strand is the story that Elizabeth tells her son Jack to explain the absence of his father.  While the action unfolds between Elizabeth and the Blackwells, the novel is also about the power of storytelling.
Nixon explains at the beginning of the novel that he has been given the story of Elizabeth from a member of the public.  Although Nixon was initially sceptical about taking on the story, he does, and the novel is the final result.  Nixon notes that it took some time to find a suitable narrative voice and structure for the book which I think has resulted in Nixon showing explicitly the problems with how to present a story as a strand of the novel.  Readers will either find this approach either endearing or annoying.  As a dabbling writer and literary student I could see the technique as a post-modern but all the while thinking, yeah I know that the construction of story is artificial, that not all historical facts are available, and that the author is choosing what to include and what to leave out in order to persuade readers to continue the narrative (bear in mind though that I am currently researching a historical novel and the issues that Nixon has faced I am also facing).  While it is interesting to see the thought process of a writer it did make me wonder if the novel could have worked as a creative non-fiction piece where the known facts of the family could be presented along with Nixon’s motivation and perspective on writing a family story, and the ethical and moral obligations this creates for the writer.
The only draw-back from the inclusion of the self-conscious reflection on the nature of storytelling is that I felt the two strong female characters were under developed.  I never really felt like I got inside Elizabeth’s head.  Sure, I knew that her husband was presumed dead, and that she had the care of her child with the help of her parents, and was now nursing a man with no memory, and while I could imagine what she was going through, I felt her character development skimmed across the surface.  I wanted more.  I felt the same about Mrs Blackwell who is a strong woman, perhaps more through class than gumption, but I wanted more access to her thoughts.  The fact that I wanted more could be attributed to Nixon’s skill at characterisation however I feel he could have expanded the characters to give them more depth.
About half-way through the book mental health services are consulted about Mr Blackwell’s care.  The psychiatrist says, “Medication is the main weapon in the modern psychiatrist’s arsenal.  We would have to experiment but I am confident that the new barbiturates will keep your husband’s mood swings in check” (143).  From my own research on the history of mental health services, specifically at Seacliff Mental Hospital (which was just outside of Dunedin) from the 1920s until the mid-1940s I’m left wondering about the historical accuracy of the doctor’s statement.  The post war periods were very important for changing the medical fraternity’s attitude to mental health.  As increasing numbers of people suffered from shell shock, and recovered from it, mental illness went from being perceived as incurable to being potentially curable.  The treatments available though were limited, such as: therapeutic conversation which included suggestions and persuasion for self-cure, hypnosis, seclusion and restraints, plus psycho-analysis and psychathenics for the more difficult patients.  While calomel salts and paraldehyde (which is a barbiturate) were used at Seacliff for sedation at night, medication only became popular treatments for mental illness from the late 1940s to 1950s in New Zealand.  There were experiments with malarial serums, insulin coma therapy and cardiazol shock treatment before ECT and drugs came along.  I’m basing my information on Susan Fennell’s essay “Psychiatry in New Zealand 1912-1948” and my understanding is that there were no effective drugs to be prescribed that could treat patients in the period that Nixon is writing about.  While my research has been based on Seacliff, Nixon is writing about Sunnyside where different experiments may have taken place and where different doctors may have had different attitudes to drugs than those at Seacliff.  Truby King, who was the Medical Superintendent at Seacliff from 1889-1920, was suspicious of drugs and Freud but from my research I don’t believe in 1920 that “Medication is the main weapon in the modern psychiatrist’s arsenal,” experimentation maybe, but no drugs were available to treat psychiatric patients.  Of course, the statement by the doctor in Nixon’s novel also reflects the (misplaced) confidence of the psychiatrist at Sunnyside, and how willing doctors of the period were to experiment on patients.

 While I have had a few misgivings about the novel, I did find Elizabeth an interesting woman and the development of her relationship with Mr Blackwell is fascinating to watch, I just would have liked more of it.  In some ways the narrative reminded me of the new Australian TV series A Place to Call Home in its premise (rich family and a new nurse on the scene), so if you enjoy that show I would give the book a try (Nixon’s book is certainly more imaginative than the TV show).  I do see the quandary for Nixon in telling this story – emphasis on the love story would make it too soppy, whereas the literary emphasis can alienate it from some audiences – in the end he has tried to do both which may please neither. 

Saturday, 16 November 2013

The Last Days of the National Costume by Anne Kennedy (Allen & Unwin 2013)

The theme of deconstruction seems to be prevalent in the NZ books I’ve been reading lately.  Sarkies and Jones both had elements of deconstruction, last week it was Pip Adam’s buildings and this week it’s Anne Kennedy’s frock.  Not just any old frock, Kennedy’s main character GoGo is mending an Irish dancing dress while thinking about Derrida (amongst other things).  The frock, transported from Ireland, and ripped and repaired in New Zealand, is a symbol of postcolonial (de)construction.

            The novel is set during the 1998 blackout in Auckland.  I wasn’t in New Zealand at the time of the blackout - I was living in London, attending Riverdance, and wondering whether I had inherited dancing genes from an Irish ancestor because I never know what to do with my arms while dancing  - in other words, I was on my big OE (de)constructing my national identity.  So I was oblivious to the blackout in our biggest city.  Kennedy describes living in Auckland without electricity and the effect it has on the city, and the individuals in it.  Everyday chores are cumbersome because of the lack of power, but within this lack there is a latent potential.  As GoGo’s husband, Art, walks home on the first day of the blackout he is taken by the wonder of the city without power.  This wonder is explored throughout the novel by GoGo as she hand sews an Irish dancing dress while listening to its owner tell the story of the dress’s journey to New Zealand. 

            While GoGo mends clothes from their villa in Auckland, her husband Art is studying for his PhD in Settler Literary Ephemera.  There is quite a bit of literary academic discourse throughout the novel related to Derrida (GoGo and Art first meet attending a Derrida Down Under speaking tour) and other postcolonial theorists.  While I’m not familiar with all the theorists I think mentioning them so explicitly points to the idea of (de)constructing national identity, as well as asking what constitutes settler culture.  At one point GoGo attends a party where other people are wearing examples of national costumes and GoGo realises that she has no such garment to wear.

            Class is also a prevalent theme in the novel.  Art and GoGo are what I would call middle class boho chic; twenty-somethings who are asset poor but educationally rich and dabbling in socialism.  While they don’t appear to have a lavish lifestyle, Art’s parents are well to-do and there is an understanding that Art will inherit a rather comfortable sum one day.  They also live rent free (courtesy of Art’s parents), and GoGo’s sewing brings in an income but not one they have to rely on.  While GoGo pronounces that she’s not materialist, she is doing quite nicely from her in-laws wealth.  This contradiction is played out in the novel.

            Initially I struggled with GoGo’s characterisation.  At first I thought she was a lot older than her 26 years but I got over that relatively easily because the first person narration (which sometimes slides into second) builds an easy and intimate rapport with the reader.  GoGo’s viewpoint on materialism and education is initially naïve and I found that a bit annoying which is probably a reflection of my working class background where tertiary education was not a given, but I came to like GoGo as I watched her grow, and I believe Kennedy has presented GoGo’s views for them to be challenged. 

While I have been referencing the postcolonial, class and education aspects of the novel, it is also about relationships, what marriage is and what love means, and what you can get away with when the lights go out.

Saturday, 9 November 2013

I’m Working on a Building (VUP 2013) by Pip Adam

This is the second novel I’ve read and reviewed within as many weeks that deals with earthquakes.  While Lloyd Jones’s novel dealt specifically with the Christchurch earthquakes, Adam’s novel imagines an earthquake in Wellington.  What both Jones’s and Adam’s novels have in common is that the earthquake, or deconstruction in general, acts as a catalyst to question identity and what it is based on. 

Adam’s first book Everything We Hoped For was a collection of short stories that was awarded the NZSA Hubert Church Best First Book Award.  I’m Working on a Building is her first novel.  The main character is Catherine, an engineer who is good at her job but not so good with people.  Catherine is not particularly likeable, she is distant and aloof, but as the narrative goes on - or goes backwards as the narrative starts at the present and then moves back to Catherine’s youth - we learn more about her and though never completely warming to her, come to understand her better. 

The use of buildings, and Catherine’s ability to engineer, seems to act as an analogy for (de)constructing her identity.  Catherine’s friend Tansy imagines Catherine as a house that no one can enter, which suggests that Catherine’s identity is projected through buildings.  However, Catherine does not seem aware of this fact, instead she believes the buildings she works on are far more magical than human in their edifice, but the perspectives of other characters suggests that Catherine constitutes her identity through her work on an unconscious level.  This becomes problematic for Catherine when the building she is working on collapses in an earthquake.

Structure is a prominent feature in the novel, not only in the use of engineering and its discourse but also the structure of narrative.  The chapters in the novel focus on a particular building (or series of buildings) around the globe that Catherine has worked on or admires: Ryugyong Hotel, Plattenbauten, Rankine Brown, to name a few.  The use of the technical engineering language is convincing and because of the extensive research Adam’s has done about engineering (Adam’s completed the novel as part of a PhD) building geeks will enjoy the use of the discourse in fiction. 

From my perspective, as a non-engineering geek, it is not so much the engineering language that I engaged with but how Adam’s has transferred the idea of engineering structure onto narrative.  While the majority of the text is in third person focalised through Catherine, we also have other characters’ perspectives about Catherine through first and second person narration.  Using all these tools in the narrative box (remembering that the narrative goes back rather than forward) suggests that Adam’s is taking a leaf out of the engineering book and is trying to construct something new while exposing the beams of narrative.  It could also suggest, through the use of the ‘I’ the ‘we’ the ‘she’ of narrative perspective, that showing the unified self/character in a novel is a fiction.  I could be over thinking it perhaps, but Adam’s book has made me think and question what she’s doing throughout – this is not a bad thing – it’s good to get your readers thinking, to challenge their ideas about story and how it could/should be constructed.  Readers of this book will not be observers to the unfolding action, but an active participant in ideas about structure. 


Saturday, 2 November 2013

A History of Silence: A Memoir by Lloyd Jones (Penguin 2013)


My eldest sister once quipped after over-hearing someone blame Mother Nature for the Christchurch earthquakes, “it’s always a bloody woman’s fault.”  This snippet of conversation came back to me while I was reading Jones’s memoir which uses the series of Christchurch earthquakes as an analogy for the discovery and consequent rocking of his family’s foundations.  The land Christchurch was built on was originally a swap  - Jones suggests this fact was silenced, indeed forgotten, as the city and its inhabitants got on with life, until, as we know, the earthquakes brought forth liquefaction from the depths of the swamp back into Christchurch streets.  The reason why my sister’s quip came back to me is because the maternal line of Jones’s family history was most heavily silenced, and in engineering Christchurch for settlement Mother Nature had been to.  While I am not suggesting Jones blames his mother or grandmother, or indeed Mother Nature, the women’s silence about their past has had a profound effect on him, and in the memoir he seeks to give them a voice at a time when Mother Nature has been directing hers at Christchurch. 

            The memoir is told in an almost stream of consciousness way but with better punctuation.  One recollection leads to another and another and so on, therefore, the structure is not linear, readers move from the present to the past as Jones’s seeks to uncover his Grandparents on his mother and father’s side.  This style of narrative is engaging and I found at times I wanted to enter into the conversation where I found similarities with my own family history, which adds to the satisfaction of the reading experience.  Throughout Jones’s personal recollections and discoveries, the landscape enters.  Readers are taken from Christchurch post the September 2010 and February 2011 quakes, to Wales, around Petone and Wellington, and to a farm down south.  The land is shown to move, to meld, to hide and uncover, much as Jones’s family history does throughout the narrative. 

            While I acknowledge the landscape as a central motif in Jones’s memoir I feel a bit ambivalent about the inclusion of the Christchurch earthquakes, and by someone not from Christchurch or having had direct experience of the quakes.  The ethical concern of whose story it is to tell comes into play, as it does when delving into family history when a writer ends up speaking for members of their family who cannot answer back.  But then at no time does Jones suggest that he had direct experience of the quakes, rather he records his perspective and observations as an outsider.

In some ways, Jones is also an outsider to his family’s narrative.  While he lives in the same house as his parents, he knows little of their background or how previous life experiences have shaped them.  At times he acknowledges that imagination fills the gap between what he has heard and what official documents reveal.  Jones has a history of pushing the boundaries of narrative perspective, some critics slammed his adoption of a female perspective in Hand Me Down World and Biografi pushed the boundaries of fact and fiction.  Jones takes risks with narrative - he tries new perspectives, which always means his work is thought provoking and has the potential to be contentious.

            In some ways the memoir reminded me of Jones’s novel The Book of Fame (2000) which recounts the journey of The Originals rugby team to the United Kingdom in 1905.  That novel is about belonging, feeling a sense of self, and of course, in both the memoir and the novel there is a historical element which weaves together fact and imagination.  While The Book of Fame is about a team of heroes who help forge the identity of a new nation, Jones’s memoir is about forging the identity of a family in a new country, while still seeing elements of the self in the old one.  While The Book of Fame has poetic elements, the poetic is a little stretched at times in the memoir, but what both novels show is that the past never leaves us.

            Jones came to speak to the class when I attended the IIML.   As he spoke, outside, down one of those steep pedestrian walkways that link The Terrace to the city, a two storey wooden villa was burning.  The grey and black smoke was immense.  Thankfully the house was abandoned; years ago it had been set alight by a jilter lover whose girlfriend perished in the flames.  On reflection, it now seems appropriate that Jones spoke to the class on the same day as the fire because what I especially liked about Jones’s book are his descriptions of Wellington and the surroundings areas.  In my mind I could walk in the suburbs he mentioned, and see not only the physical landscape but imagine the emotional and historical connections to place.  The memoir shows that much like family history, the land is like a palimpsest that is continually written on over and over.

Saturday, 26 October 2013

The Demolition of the Century by Duncan Sarkies (Penguin 2013)

The Empire Cinema in Island Bay Wellington shut down his week.  There was a lot of disbelief in the community and I came across one woman who was lamenting the fact that she could no longer take her grandchildren there for ice cream after their weekly trip to the library.  While the Empire is still standing, for now, an old cinema called the Century is being demolished by Spud and his team in Sarkies second novel.  The cinema stands as a metaphor for the examination of the past, where Spud takes out the good bits and takes the wrecking ball to the rest.  While Spud is doing the demo job, a man called Tom Spotswood (aka William McGinty) has returned to town in order to find his hidden loot got by fraudulent means, and to reconnect with his wife and their seven year old son, Frank. 

The novel follows Spud and Tom and their struggle to emotionally connect with those they love amongst the stresses of life.  Spud shows more affection for his T-Rex wrecking ball (not in a Miley Cyrus way) than to his wife and daughter, while Tom tries to connect with his son, but the men who are tracking Tom down for his loot continually get in his way.  The strength of this novel is it’s characterisation of men who feel intensely for those around them but cannot express it.

Duncan Sarkies is the author of Two Little Boys and he also wrote the screenplay Scarfies; both of which have been made into films by his brother Robert.  While I have never met the brothers, I have met their Uncle.  I was working in a doctor’s surgery during the university summer break.  The Uncle didn’t go by his proper first name, adopting a nickname which didn’t align with his medical record (which a surprising number of people do), anyway, it took me a while to find his record.  While I was fumbling about he said:
“You must have heard of my nephews?” 
I must have looked puzzled at this point – I had registered the name Sarkies but didn’t think much of it – I just wanted to find the man’s file while thinking that I needed to find a way to avoid administration jobs for the rest of my life.
“You know, Robert and Duncan, Scarfies?”
“Oh yes, yes, of course.”
Uncle was happy, and I had found his file.
You know you must be pretty flash if you’re getting name dropped in a South Dunedin medical reception, and yes, I agree that the Sarkies brothers are pretty flash, and that Duncan has had a commercially successful writing career.   (He also has the flashest author picture since Stephanie Johnson decided to wear a cowgirl hat.)  But what my anecdote is trying to illustrate is that he is a Dunedin boy who has based his stories in the city, and he has successfully shown a white male working class/bogan culture, most prominently in Two Little Boys, within that city.  I enjoy the way he writes the intensity of the homosocial connections between characters in a city which has a very strong homosocial history with men coming to the region to find gold, and undertake other colonial manly pursuits. 

In the latest novel however, Sarkies characters have upped sticks to somewhere called The City, which going by some of The City’s features is Wellington by another name.  Every time The City was mentioned in the book I was a wee Bit Annoyed and questioned why he didn’t just name the actual city the characters are in.  I guess he could have changed locations because he was sick of being associated with Dunedin and wanted a change of scene, and perhaps by having a nondescript name for The City means the novel may have a greater international audience, and maybe he wanted to play it a bit free and loose with locations and was aiming for an imaginative landscape rather than a literal one.  These are valid reasons, but for someone who has lived in both Dunedin and Wellington it became a Bit Annoying, a distraction from the characters, and left me wondering why Sarkies was avoiding place when it has served him so well in the past.

My other nit-picking comment is the first person perspective.  The novel interweaves the first person perspective of Spud and Tom which means that some scenes where both characters appear are told twice.  A close third person narrator who focalised both of the characters may have been more effective, it would have saved the double ups while still getting inside each character’s head.  But don’t let my comments about The City and narrative perspective put you off this novel.  It is very entertaining.  Sarkies has an excellent ear for idiom and dialogue.  The demolition lingo and Spud’s collection of artefacts from the sites rang true to me because my father partook in a little demolition and could not help but bring a lot of crap home, and like Spud, my dad also had a few random yards around the place.  It also made me recall the time when I was growing up in Timaru and an old department store was being demolished to make way for a bank.  As a family we sat in the car and watched the wrecking ball swing, and this is what good books should do - bring up your own recollections so that you can relate to the characters on a deeper level.  

Sunday, 20 October 2013

I Heart Nellie Titterington

Max Gate (VUP 2013) by Damien Wilkins

It seemed fitting to pick up a novel that discusses the ownership of a writer’s remains (both physical and literary) on Katherine Mansfield’s 125th birthday.  The fact that her birthday is still noted and celebrated (even Google had KM on their webpage) brings to mind Margaret Atwood’s book Negotiating with the Dead where she suggests that one of the reasons writers write is because of the desire to be immortal.  While I’m not suggesting that every writer has this desire, it is true that KM has been alive in our literary imaginations for a lot longer than she spent on the earth.  While John Middleton Murry was in charge of KM’s legacy, Wilkins’s novel investigates the intricacies of handling Thomas Hardy’s reputation just before and immediately after his death.

 It was with some trepidation that I started reading Wilkins’s novel because I haven’t read any Thomas Hardy and I feared I may miss out on some literary allusions throughout the text.  By the end of the first sentence I had disregarded such fears, “When you wake in a warm bed in winter besieged all around by cold, for an instant you believe you have it in your power to stay right where you are for as long as you want” and snuggled down into the narrative voice of Nellie Titterington, a maid at Hardy’s house.  Nellie is a strapping lass with a delightful name, and an even more delightful talent with bawdy language.  Nellie recalls the visitors to Max Gate, the house where Hardy and his second wife Florence live, such as literary manager Mr Cockerill, J.M. Barrie, and Alex who is a local newspaper reporter and love interest of Nellie’s.  Thomas’s physical presence is off-stage, he is upstairs dying while Florence and her gentleman visitors discuss how to manage his legacy.

Nellie relates the workings of the house, her interactions with the other staff, and Florence who is at times practical and at other times distressed about how to care for Hardy’s reputation while being haunted by the legacy of his first wife, Emma.  The divide between the residents and the staff does have a feeling of ‘upstairs/downstairs’ about it, and also gives the book its comic relief at what is a stressful and emotionally charged time.  The subject matter doesn’t immediately suggest it, but this is a funny book.  While the theme of the novel is about literary legacy, who ‘owns’ a writer, and who is in charge of their reputation, and who wants to make a buck from it, Nellie’s perspective makes the novel feel playful while also being sensitive to those around her.

At times Nellie wants to slip into second person, she wants to say ‘we’ when recollecting incidents which reiterates the issue of who gets to speak about Hardy, who is to be believed, and whose story is accurate.  Nellie also makes this somewhat tongue in cheek statement when she relates a conversation between Alex and Mr Cockerill, “The hare sees the two men and takes a different path, hopping behind a tree.  I imagine it carries a recording device attached to one ear, which I placed there so that my account could be as full as possible” (32).  This wishful thinking shows the problem of a narrator trying to relate instances from the past with absolute accuracy.  Of course, individuals can usually remember the gist of a conversation rather than verbatim recollections, but the joy of historical fiction is that imagination acts as bunny ears which persuades the reader of accuracy, whether fact or not.  The research appears in this novel seamlessly; I could not tell when imagination took over from the historical record. 

At times I wondered whether Nellie was modelled on Hardy’s Tess (or another of Hardy’s female characters), but one that Wilkins has made empowered by her personal and sexual agency rather than a victim of patriarchy or class.  What I did pick up was Hardy’s love and protection of animals and nature in general, so much so it seems the house would be overtaken by the shrubbery and trees that surround it.  While this provided privacy, a gate to keep prying eyes out, and beauty, it also shows that nature untamed can dwarf and become menacing to its human inhabitants, as Thomas’s legacy becomes intimating to those that care for him.  

Wilkins’s book has made me want to read Hardy for the joy of his work itself, but also so I can bring out the resonances of Wilkins’s novel.  It is funny, with a touch of irony given Wilkins’s incredibly successful career as a writer and now as the Director of the IIML, but the novel is not a case of a writer naval gazing and contemplating burning first drafts in the backyard, it is joyful because Wilkins has chosen Nellie to tell the story who handles Hardy’s legacy with honesty, warmth and sensitivity.  I hope when I do get around to reading Hardy I will find a character that looms as large to me as Nellie does in Wilkins’s novel.

Monday, 14 October 2013

The West Coast is so hot right now

The West Coast of the South Island has ignited the imaginations of several New Zealand writers of late.  Notably, Eleanor Catton’s Booker short-listed novel, and now we have a short story collection by Amy Head called Tough (VUP 2013).   The volume of stories mixes together contemporary and historic anecdotes of life on the coast.  My usual reading practice with a collection of short stories is to pick my reading order by the titles that first entice me, however with this collection I read it from start to finish.  I changed my reading practice because during my MA year, where some of my classmates were writing short stories, there seemed to be great importance placed on the order in which the stories appeared in their folios.  I guess it’s much like putting an album together, the musician wants to create a series of moods and tones throughout the work so the listener can hear how each work relates to the other to progress the main theme, but also how each song stands alone.

Head appropriately gives her readers entry to the coast via the “West Coast Road.”  In the opening story, Edward Dobson has invited Julius von Haast around for dinner, where they and Dobson’s son Arthur, sit around discussing land, road and water flows, as one does when one is a surveyor in colonial New Zealand.  The story is engaging and shows the domesticity of men who tried to domesticate the land for European settlement.  While the story is meant to be about the road from east to west coast, the people are the more engaging element of the story and I wanted to hear more about them (or to be more precise, the reimagining of them).  At one point I could see this lounge room setting as the basis for a novel, but then the story turns back to the road, Arthur’s Pass, and we jump from references to Dobson to 1999 and mention of Google.  On the one hand my desire to know more about the characters shows Head’s skill at characterisation, but on the other I found the abrupt ending a little unsatisfying.

 It wasn’t until I got to the story “Flood” that I felt at-home with Head’s collection.  The Constable coming across Robert Cooper, a prospector, and Cooper’s step-sister Ellen in a tent seemed a situation with many possible outcomes, as indeed it does to the Constable when it is suggested he take Ellen back into town.  The surprise at discovering a woman in a tent on the coast in flood was similar to the surprise I felt when I first realised than one of the traveller’s in Mansfield’s story “Woman at the Store” is a woman.  Mansfield’s story is about the inhospitable land and how the land affects the psyche, and Head’s too, is about violence and thwarted expectations. 

 The title story “Tough” links to “Flood” and “A Strange Story” by episodes of violence.  The murder of a surveyor called Dobson, which is first mentioned in “Flood”, is expanded on in “Tough” where we are told that the Burgess Gang staged a series of robberies and mistakenly murdered a surveyor called Dobson (who I assume is from the Dobson clan mentioned in the first story), and then go on to murder another five men.  The main character called Tough is caught up in the excitement that the reports of the gang’s exploits generate while he himself is ill and seeks a remedy.  When he’s a little better and working on a ferry coach he witnesses the bodies of two men floating by.  Both men are missing their eyeballs.  We find out more about these men in “A Strange Story.”  It is these connected stories which are the most satisfying in Head’s collection.  They do what all good connected stories do - retell incidents through different perspectives so the reader can see how large these incidents loom in the individual character’s life.  Realising the connections of these stories made me go back and re-read the earlier stories, particularly to see if Duncan’s wish to be a sinner (in the story of the same name) was actualised by him being a member of the Burgess Gang, but I could see no obvious link.

 The contemporary stories have no such connection that I can see, aside from their setting on the West Coast.  We have outsiders travelling to the coast such as the female American erotic costume designer taking part in a duck plucking competition at the local pub, a young man working at a hardware store about to go on a work-do, and coasters working in a kitchen where tourists are served and love is thwarted, amongst others.  While these scenarios are interesting and contrast the outsider status of visitors, and those who are considered outsiders within the coast community, they do not have the same resonance as the historical stories do.

 Head’s short stories are accomplished, and she has managed to incorporate historical detail seamlessly in her narrative.  She is very skilled at describing the landscape and the descriptions of water - its channelling, flooding and wealth - is like another character that links her stories together.  What her and Catton’s novel make me question is why the West Coast, and why now?  Sure, the books have the same publisher (as does Pip Adam whose new book is also set on the West Coast), but I don’t think this is a defining factor as Charlotte Randall’s Hokitika Town (Penguin 2011) seemed to start off this literary West Coast fever.  But I do keep asking myself what the return, the re-imagining, of the colonial West Coast says about contemporary New Zealand literature, and what postcolonial inferences can we take from this revisiting?  Why is the West Coast so hot right now?

Sunday, 6 October 2013

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton (2013 VUP)

I finished reading The Luminaries on the evening of a perigee full moon. The timing seemed fortuitous as the structure of Catton’s novel is based on the phases of the moon, and how those phases illuminate the characters and the narrative.  Walter Moody has arrived in Hokitika in January 1866 and checks into a hotel where 12 men have gathered.  Unbeknown to Walter the men have gathered to discuss recent sensational events in the town and Walter’s presence is unwelcome.  The hotel/drawing room setting has a sniff of the Dickensian about it, but the novel leans more to the Sensation novel of the Victorian period.  The Victorians found delight in their nerves being jangled by incidents of murder, poisoning, identity fraud, insanity, abduction, and concerns about heredity.  My nerves were suitably jangled by similiar events in Catton’s novel.    

I have not read Catton’s enormously successful first novel The Rehearsal which garnered many international plaudits.  However, Catton notes in an interview with The Lumiére Reader that her second novel follows the thematic concerns of her first novel in investigating whether there can “be a version of an event that is more true than another version, with the answer probably put forward being no.”  In the novel we hear different versions of events, not simply the same scenes reiterated by different characters, instead the action is forwarded by perspectives and action viewed by different characters.  Slowly, like the phases of the moon, parts of the narrative are told to reveal the whole.  The idea of different characters taking up the narrative is not a new idea for sensational literature.  Catton notes that Wilkie Collins uses the device for The Woman in White.  Catton’s use however, is more successful.  Having read The Woman in White as an undergraduate I recall that Collins’s narrative loses its drive three-quarters of the way through and ends up being monopolised by one character.  Catton’s characters’ perspectives slot seamlessly into each other, without one overshadowing the other, and the narrative maintains momentum.

The Luminaries, according to Catton, is also to do with self-knowledge.  She asks, “Does perfect self-knowledge mean that you can act as unlike as that person as you know, or does it just mean you’re a slave to what you know about yourself.”  Each of the 12 men in the hotel lounge are aligned with a sign of the zodiac.  Each sign has different traits and characteristics, and I think the narrative attempts to show whether the astrological sign and its related characteristics confine the characters to those specific traits.  Whether characters’ traits align with the zodiac is up for the reader’s interpretation, or inclination, for astrology.  From a writer’s perspective I can see the attraction of building characters out of the characteristics of the zodiac and it would be all too easy for them to turn into types, but Catton avoids this.  The novel could be read with little or no knowledge of astrology and it is still an intriguing narrative.  However, the novel does feel like one you could study for some time to reveal its nuances.

One thing that can change an individual’s conception of themselves is a change of environment.  The majority of characters have come from elsewhere having followed the gold rushes in the new world.  To get to Hokitika they have crossed ‘the bar’ which acts like a liminial space, which if successfully crossed offers potential riches but also the threat of demise.  While a character may have aligned themselves with certain traits in the ‘old country’ (whichever country that may be), a new country offers new challenges to the individual and their conception of themselves.  For some, success in Hokitika means leaving it, for others they become resigned to stay.  The township itself is described mostly by its waterways and hotels.  At times however, it seems like the only inhabitants of the town are those mentioned in the narrative.  While having more of the general community would have added a bit more hussle and bussle, the lack of other people gives the narrative a sense of sparseness like the empty streets of a Western.

The size of the narrative is somewhat overwhelming.  I could spend a paragraph writing quips about its length.  With a book of such a large size I think the ending has to pay off, and I‘m not sure if the short chapters at the conclusion do.  They may be astrologically accurate but they are short and feel rushed which disrupts the pleasure in finishing a long narrative.  However, it is impressive how Catton has kept all the narrative strands together in such a mammoth word count.  The narrative is pacy, the characters are well drawn, in a Dickensian sense.  There is humour, and I did not feel tricked by an obvious plot omission in the mystery that can occur in some novels in order to continue the narrative.  It may be better for you wrists to buy this book as an e-book, however if you want to buy and treasure the book as an object I would suggest you bypass the paperback (it won’t last the distance) and go straight for the hardback.