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 na├»ve 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.