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.