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.