Sunday, 26 October 2014

Reach by Laurence Fearnley (Penguin 2014)

Laurence Fearnley’s novel is an antidote to Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch’s suffocating detail.  I read the Pulitzer award winning novel before Fearnley’s, and while I enjoyed it in parts, I found myself skimming over her wordy descriptions which suggests to me that those details weren’t necessary to the narrative.  And, at the conclusion of The Goldfinch I expected the theme to be somewhat more profound, given that the author had spent 700 odd pages to illustrate it.  Anyhow, this is a blog about New Zealand books and I only mention my reaction to The Goldfinch because I picked up Fearnley’s novel straight afterwards and sighed with relief.  Fearnley is a writer who cuts to the chase by using sparse language and beautiful descriptions to convey emotional depth, and engagement with the landscape.

Reach is Fearnley’s eighth novel.  The writing is confident and assured as the narrative follows the two main characters, Marcus and Quinn.  Marcus is a vet and is professionally doing quite well.  He has been living with Quinn for several years.  Marcus left his wife and daughter to live with Quinn, and hasn’t had any contact with his daughter who now lives overseas with her mother.  Marcus replays these actions in his head over the course of the novel, trying to convince himself that he isn’t a bad person.  Quinn is a successful artist who is preparing for an upcoming exhibition.  The relationship between Marcus and Quinn is one of two successful people who are together but also have independent lives.  Neither of the pair are very good at communicating with each other (or with others), and you get a sense that as their relationship has continued the list of things that remain unsaid has grown.  This creates a distance between the two, and when they are negotiating this gap, Callum turns up.

Callum is a deep sea diver who lives in a housetruck that occasionally parks outside Quinn’s house on the coast.  He is a man who finds diving an almost meditative experience and thrives on the beauty of the deep sea environment.  Callum and Quinn meet on the beach and after some awkward conversations, Callum describes what he sees when diving and Quinn pictures this in her mind, and creates a print of it for him.  Even though she has never dived, and can’t even swim, through Callum’s description she can relate to his experience of diving through her art.  Throughout the narrative the role of art in communicating and connecting with people is played out.  However, Quinn’s choice of subject matter for her exhibition – marriage - also confuses the lines of communication.  Callum dreads the content, fearing that their relationship will be portrayed negatively.

The symbol of the umbilical cord comes up a few times in the narrative.  Art as an umbilical that connects people, but also an umbilical cord, of sorts, connects Callum to his ship and fellow divers when he is saturation diving.  There are also umbilical cords between mother and child, between father and child.  Essentially the novel is about connection, who we choose to be attached to and what pushes people apart.  The narrative drive of the novel is whether Quinn and Callum will stay together.

My only niggle with the book is that the city where its set is called Cook.  To me, it feels like Quinn’s house is on the South Coast of Wellington, near Owhiro Bay, but then other descriptions made me think is in Dunedin.  It doesn’t really matter, it’s not imperative to the unfolding action, I guess I just found the other details so specific and apt that I wanted the place to be specific too.  I live in Wellington, but also lived in Dunedin and can see the similarities between the topography of the cities.  Sometimes when I’m walking from Berhampore into Newtown down Adelaide Road I mistake Mt Kaukau for Mt Cargill.

I really enjoyed this novel and its careful examination of relationships.  I’ve already recommended the book to three other people.  I should note that Laurence Fearnley was a reader for Master’s thesis a.k.a. my first failed novel.  She gave me some great comments, but alas it hasn’t found a home outside of my bedroom.  When I met her in person some time later, I asked her what you should do when your first novel doesn’t fly, and she said, write another one.  Which is what she did, to a great deal of success, and it’s advice that I am currently following.

Monday, 6 October 2014

Ian Wedde and Helena Brow

I went to hear Ian Wedde and Helena Wisniewska Brow in conversation with Harry Ricketts about memory, home and exile at the Writers on Monday series held at Te Papa by the IIML.  Ian and Helena have recently released memoirs where they trace family narratives and the idea of home. For Ian, his home shifts from Blenheim to Bangladesh and the UK, whereas Helena traced her father’s journey from Poland to New Zealand in 1944.  
Wedde thinks of memory as the unreliable engine of the unconscious.  He explains that memory is a dream-like condition, which, if you open yourself up to it, and are alert and receptive to odd occurrences, it opens you up to possibilities that you couldn’t imagine.  I think this ‘opening up’ to memory is much like an unconscious writing process where you open yourself up to delve deep into the unconscious and write about what you find there.  
Wedde uses two metaphors for describing his investigation into home and the family narrative.  The first is a rooks nest.  When the Wedde family were living in England, Ian and his twin brother would climb up into a massive rooks nest that was attached to the side of a country house.  The nest was a tangle of branches which was fabulous to break into and investigate but also stank of the excrement of the birds’ life and death.  Tracing the idea of home has the same dualism of the fantastic and the repulsive.  The second metaphor, and the title of Wedde’s book, is The Grass Catcher.  When Ian was growing up his father had a grass catcher attached to the hand mower that he detached and hung up on the garage wall when not in use.  When the Wedde family came home in the car the headlights of the vehicle would highlight the grass catcher and it would become an awful object, a mask that had within it the sense of the uncanny; of the familiar and unfamiliar.  
It is through objects that both Wedde and Brow tell their stories.  For Brow it is through photographs that acted like prompts and created a space for stories to be told.  Brow’s book is called Give us this Day a line in the Lord’s prayer that Brow knows by heart in Polish, and signifies living for the day, and also her father’s struggle to get through a day.  Ricketts noted that at one stage in the narrative Brow’s father is eating grass on the side of the road for sustenance.  
What caught my imagination, or sparked memories for me, was Wedde’s discussion of the unheimlich (the uncanny), which is a sense of something neither being totally familiar nor totally unfamiliar.  It’s also the sense of the familiar in something unfamiliar and the unfamiliar in the familiar, and that these two senses cannot be held completely apart.  While Wedde liked the grass catcher when it was doing its job of catching grass, on the garage wall it became the unfamiliar, a mask, but at the same time it was the familiar grass catcher. The grass catcher was something liked but also feared.  Wedde uses this dualism (familiar/unfamiliar) frequently and how this tension rubs-up against each other in his reflections about home, and his family.
Wedde’s reflection about his dad’s grass catcher sparked a few memories of my past in which the familiar became unfamiliar, and scary.  When I was an adolescent our family lived in Sarah Street in Timaru in a two-storey roughcast and brick house.  Upstairs, there was a full-length mirror on the wall outside my bedroom.  While in the day time I saw the track marks of a duster running over the glass, at night time when the hallway light reflected off it, the track marks made a man’s face with flowing hair.  The mirror became something to avoid, to not look at directly because I was scared of someone (aside from myself) looking back.  It was all just the stuff of an adolescent imagination but I still remember being freaked out by something familiar becoming unfamiliar and scary.
I also felt that tension when my family lived on a five acre block on the outskirts of town.  There was so much space and it was so quiet that it was comforting, but I was also scared of the space and quiet.  It seemed impossible that there wasn’t someone out there, watching.  Alongside this fear of people lurking, I was also scared of the fact that there might not be anyone there.  The enjoyment I felt in the open space and solitude also rubbed up against my fear of it.  And I guess the same can be said for the idea of home; at times you want to escape it and be alone, while at other times you’re sacred of being alone and run to it.