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.