Categories
Book Reviews Greta & Valdin - Rebecca K Reilly Uncategorized

Book Review: Greta & Valdin by Rebecca K Reilly

Victoria University Press, RRP NZ$30.00 Contemporary Fiction

This debut novel exploring the particular nuance of modern romance and the dynamics of an eccentric and worldly family sets itself apart immediately with its animated style and biting observational humour. Greta & Valdin, by Rebecca K Reilly (Ngāti Hine, Ngāti Wai), is set in the author’s city of residence, Tāmaki Makaurau, with swift diversions to Wellington, Buenos Aires and Medellín. Reilly’s zingy and feisty prose makes Auckland seductive and intriguing, a surprisingly perfect fictional setting.

The titular Greta and Valdin are the two youngest siblings in the Vladisavljevic family. Valdin is pining for his ex-boyfriend Xabi (who is also his uncle’s husband’s brother, which oddly seems to be not much of an issue for anyone), and Greta’s in love with Holly, her fellow tutor at the university. Their family, a Māori-Russian-Catalonian blend, is detailed on a character list. This is helpful because there are two Gretas in this novel, joining the swarm of Greta characters in recent New Zealand fiction.

The chapters alternate point of view between the siblings, cleverly building on each other’s experiences. Greta’s headstrong and bursting into adulthood, sometimes more clumsily than she would like. The scenes with Greta and her friends were highlights – they felt animated and warm. Valdin, her older brother, is off-beat and meticulous. He’s left his job as a physicist at the university to host a travel television show, where his awkwardness makes for great content. Both Greta and Valdin are romantics at heart, and they share a dry sense of humour. Their attention to detail feels distinctly personal, and Reilly seems to revel in canny descriptions, indiscriminate in her skewering of other people’s habits and lifestyles. Character’s clothes are reported with lush prose, creating a precise image to bring the character to life. The urban setting and the fascinations of youth brought to mind Bret Easton Ellis’s Glamorama, with its excess and focus on relationships within a material world.

The blurb indicates this novel owes a debt to Shakespeare and it’s easy to see the similarities to his great romantic comedies. Greta & Valdin delights in comedic moments and provides narrative space for characters who don’t conform to gender binaries. There’s a sublime openness to sexuality in the novel, a glorious world in which less attention is paid to the gender of your lover and more to status of your relationship. All the characters are multi-faceted and thoughtfully developed, providing the novel ample room to explore racial issues, love, sex, and family secrets. Although Reilly’s technique of telling the stories of the older family members through conversation felt contrived at times, on the whole she neatly untangled the family spectacle through narrative choices that felt organic and intuitive. The blending of cultural influences in the extended Vladisavljevic family meant plenty of scope for leaning into and subverting tropes and stereotypes.

There are a few writers who can make you laugh out loud the way Reilly can. Her comedy can be dry, but also sharp and icy: her tone is nimble and fresh without succumbing to chatter. There aren’t, however, many writers who can draw out sexual tension in the same powerful way. In a scene partway through the book, when Valdin is talking to a lover on the telephone, I was so overwhelmed I had to put the book down to take a breath, Wow. Able to push scenes to the limit for dramatic purpose, Reilly makes modern romance exciting and compelling in a way that reminded me of Sally Rooney.

Greta & Valdin is an amusing and vivacious romantic drama led by two hilarious and engaging queer main characters, and I don’t think you could ask for much more from a novel in 2021. Slyly political, this novel will charm you and keep you begging for more. While at times the two protagonists were hard to tell apart – sometimes I had to check who was the narrator – the pacy plot and quirky family dynamic more than make up for it. Greta and Valdin are more just two parts of a whole – together they form a unique friendship. Their bond is special and touching, and the novel deftly surveys the brother-sister dynamic, and how families can support and befriend themselves. With her frenetic and vibrant prose, Reilly is a fresh and daring new voice in New Zealand fiction.

Categories
Book Reviews The Disinvent Movement - Susanna Gendall

Book Review: The Disinvent Movement by Susanna Gendall

The Disinvent Movement by Susanna Gendall is a debut novel of poetic force, laced with a Parisian je ne sais quoi.

This novel isn’t heavy on plot but do not be deceived: Gendall knows how to make magic. The novel is structured into eighty-one fragments, none longer than three or four pages (most are only a few paragraphs long). This carefully crafted series of miniature stories form a web of meaning we are invited to decipher. Simple statements are twisted and turned to examine their multitudes of meaning: as the nameless narrator herself says in regards to throwaway remarks, ‘People threw away so much these days.’ Not Gendall. Even the most mundane can be transformed under her gaze. She gathers together her threads of story like precious treasure with skill and a confident dexterity.

The Disinvent Movement is captivating from the first page and doesn’t let up. Eking out details and connections, we find ourselves engaged in the story of a woman from New Zealand now living in Paris. A woman entranced by borders, boundaries, tunnels, insiders and outsiders, Amazon fires, insects, plants, death, how to find yourself, how to fit in, how to get in. Migrants and refugees and the climate emergency are all alluded to – though never with an interrogation. This novel doesn’t do that, and I’m glad it doesn’t. It would spoil the dream-like haze of this book, the hypnotic tension that hovers over the pages.

The narrator doesn’t quite know where she begins and where she ends, who or what she is. Other characters are telling her she’s like someone else: ‘It was another case of me not acting like myself.’ The Disinvent Movement captures the idea of mutability, of acting or imitating a personality, and the ever-changing essence of our beings. Who are we and can we be different? ‘Some things you just couldn’t do,’ she says early in the novel, but then again, why not? Life isn’t just one thing – it’s many things, many places. Different languages and definitions, different people. Lovers, friends, mothers: each important roles yet they could be filled by anyone. People are replaced and recast; she continues each day trying to understand the hidden mysteries of the world.

She feels out the outside, kept apart from others. But, ‘Once I was out, I wanted to get in,’ she says, and then later, once she was in, she wanted out. Out from a physically violent marriage that echoes her mother’s life. The narrator tries to leave her husband again and again. It takes at least seven attempts, she tells us, for people to leave these relationships. The difficulties in leaving abusive relationships have been well documented in research, and Gendall expresses the problems in exacting prose: ‘Each morning I knew I was closer to leaving. This was not so much about walking out the door as it was about dismantling a whole system of belief.’

Along with her marriage, our narrator begins to question all the implicit rules of society. ‘How had we all just gone along with this whole thing anyway?…Why were we trying so hard to play by the rules?’ Like Kate Chopin’s Edna and many other examples of women in fiction pushing back against the pressures of expectation, Gendall’s protagonist imagines a world where she doesn’t have to abide by the rules. What if, she imagines, things could be disinvented?

This idea leads to the creation of a small protest group – The Disinvent Movement. At their meetings they discuss what they would like to rescind from invention. Comedy ensues yet the pensive mood of the novel is maintained. Our narrator rebels in small ways, looking to remake herself, or the idea of herself. She embarks on a love affair with a man she knows only as Maurice’s friend and takes action in the night to disinvent cars. The Disinvent Movement is hilarious too, in a quiet way. Gendall digs into the dry dirt of human experience, and finds the humour hidden there.

The story fragments often end with double entendres. Gendall refuses to make it neat and tidy. The reader is forced to reinterpret what they’ve read, to reimagine every possible and plausible meaning. With echoes of Livinia Greenlaw and Jenny Offill, The Disinvent Movement is a charming novel with barely a word out of place, prying into questions of how to be, or find, ourselves – if there is such a thing.

Victoria University Press, Contemporary Fiction, NZ RRP $30.00

Categories
Book Reviews Sorrow and Bliss - Meg Mason

Book Review: Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason

Sorrow and Bliss is the second novel by Meg Mason, a New Zealand writer living in Sydney. On the longlist for the prestigious Jann Medlicott Acorn Award for Fiction at the 2021 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards, it’s the story of a woman called Martha: her hollow highs, her life-changing lows, her depression and suicidal ideation. It’s not as grim as it sounds – Mason’s writing is blisteringly funny, that’s also chic and modern in its execution.

The novel follows tall, blonde, and brilliant Martha through the years around 1994 to 2017, as she navigates life with an undiagnosed mental illness. She’s a classic unreliable narrator, and story moves around in time in fragmented anecdotes, jumping from her fortieth birthday party to her teenage years without skipping a beat, leaving stories unfinished at times, relying on the reader to make the connections and to understand the truth.

Throughout the story, Martha lives in Shepherd Bush with her father Fergus, a failed poet, and her mother Celia, a sculptor. The house is a chaotic nest of love and dysfunction. Martha and her sister Ingrid are close in age, and so alike they could be twins. Their relationship functions as the common twin trope in fiction – so similar and yet so different, so close and yet so disparate. They bond over their anger at their mother’s cold and callous nature, her alcoholic benders, and her sporadic attempts to kick out Fergus before taking him back again. Only there’s something very different about Martha, and it moves her away from Ingrid and everyone else.

Family is important in Sorrow and Bliss, and Martha’s painfully naive about their secrets. Most of the story revolves around Martha’s immediate and extended family: her aunt Winsome, uncle Rowland, and cousins Nicholas, Oliver, and Jessamine. Celia’s sister Winsome has married into wealth and lives in Belgravia, and we come to see the relationship between Celia and Winsome mirrors that of Ingrid and Martha. Each person in this family is in their own way self-centred, shallow, and cruel; although occasionally, they show each other the incomparable tenderness of unconditional love.

However, Martha’s challenges force her family to reassess how unconditional love works. How can you provide support in the face of unrelenting pain and illness? Would it be easier to give up on someone who can’t seem to ‘help themselves’? Many people will read this novel and see the dynamics of the Russell family mirroring their own journey with a family member who requires deep and unending support and understanding. It’s difficult and confronting, but an important story to tell.

While Sorrow and Bliss is about Martha and her journey to understand herself and her family, it’s also about the nature of love and being wanted. Martha lives in a world determined by her relationship to men: her well-meaning father, ill-fated first husband Jonathan, the semi-magical friend Peregrine, the ever-present second husband Patrick. Which men give her what she wants, and which men don’t. Who desires her, and who doesn’t. What an indictment of the way women often live! Finding a way through the patriarchy. Wondering constantly about who is admiring us. Who is loving us. Who might give us what we want. It’s a man who gives Martha what she wants: a psychiatrist, who gives her the diagnosis that makes sense of the lifetime of sadness; and it’s also a man who can’t give her what she wants – her second husband Patrick, who Martha assigns as the demon in her life because of his failure to diagnose her and to see through her lies and make her a mother. At times I ached for Martha to find a woman with whom she could find some peace, yet by the height of the drama, she’s pushed all the women who might support her away.

Patrick is but a shadow of a character in this book: Martha admits as much when she realises she doesn’t once think about his thoughts, his beliefs or his experiences. She’s awful to him, really. Everyone’s awful to him. I couldn’t understand why he continued to be associated with the family. But again, we are only hearing Martha’s interpretation of events. The unreliability of her story comes into play again and again, and it’s frustrating and real and dripping with sorrow as we see characters misinterpret one another.

Because we never hear Patrick’s side of the story, we never understand why he loves her, just that he does, and he’s willing to go through nearly anything to be with her. The love story feels both shallow and so powerful it shatters your heart into tiny pieces.

In a novel with many vivid scenes, Sorrow and Bliss sometimes missed an opportunity to give us more emotional power. A few scenes told in summary or flashback would have had a different impact if they’d been shown as present action. One example of this is when Martha mentions how an email made her so angry she repeatedly slammed the pointed end of her clothes iron into the wall, creating a triangular pattern of dents above her desk. Removing us from that scene, by virtue of mentioning it in only in a few lines during another scene, holds us at arm’s length from Martha and the truth of her lived experience. We’re only given snippets of this fascinating story, and I desired to be let inside the controlled narrative and see what was hidden.

It’s her story, but who is Martha, really? I’m not sure we know her truly, even at the end. We rely on what she’s told by other people, because Martha hides her true cravings and ambitions from the reader and her family. We’re told she’s beautiful – less so than her sister, but in a better way: ‘Father said, ”They might look at her first. But they’ll want to look at you for longer.”’ Several characters tell her she’s brilliant and clever and funny, although there’s little evidence of this in the book. Sadly, due to her illness, her potential is given no room to develop. She’s bounced around from doctor to doctor, provided with prescriptions like a medical guinea pig. What a difference it would’ve made if she’d been diagnosed earlier! Plenty of women can attest to this issue: in reality, women are diagnosed years later than men for almost all illnesses. Lucky for Martha, she has family with money – she’s never homeless, never abandoned. Her autonomy is oppressed under the dictatorship of her illness, but through it all she’s loved and wanted and safe.

Heavy on the sorrow, light on the bliss, Martha is irrational and irritating, heart-warming and relatable. Mason’s writing is fresh and stylish, creating an intimate novel that feels utterly, wonderfully contemporary. It’s bitter and funny with off-hand British humour, which makes up for the times Martha is frustrating enough to throw the book across the room.

Sorrow and Bliss is about legacy and inheritance, the genetic debts our parents pass down to us; it’s about homes and the memories that can be created and misremembered between their walls; it’s about being forgiven and forgiving, about forgetting and about holding each other close. It’s about personal crisis and the damage to those around us, it’s about parents and children and the lives we lead, as opposed to the lives we dreamed of. It’s about desire and being wanted, and about being truthful about what we want in return.

Categories
Addressed to Greta - Fiona Sussman Book Reviews

Book Review: Addressed to Greta by Fiona Sussman

Bateman Books, NZ RRP $34.99, Contemporary Fiction

It’s a storyline straight from a romantic comedy – a socially awkward woman, living alone with her chicken and her spa pool, receives a phone call telling her that her late friend has bequeathed her an all-expenses paid holiday. Destination and length of trip: unknown. Said woman is flustered. Can she do it? Break free of the routine and structure that she’s sheltered herself with and leave New Zealand for the first time?

In the sweet and endearing novel Addressed to Greta, the eponymous main character is lonely, frightened and ashamed of her large feet. Walter, Greta’s best friend and her unrequited love, has died and left her a trip of a lifetime, ‘an opportunity to step away from the world you know.’ Greta has lived in Auckland for over twenty years and has never heard of Tiritiri Matangi; she’s never been to the South Island, so this trip is a daunting prospect. She’s sheltered in a way that seems unbelievable. She’s utterly alone, even though she’s never without her the memory of her controlling mother, recalling the things she’d said: gems like ‘Thinking positive thoughts will not pay for the power’, and the nasty ‘If only people knew what you were really like.’

Greta’s unable to cast off her mother Nora’s admonitions and criticisms, even though her mother died five years ago. Greta is scared to make herself a life that includes her dreams and ambitions, preferring the security of her quiet and unfulfilling life. But this trip, from a friend who knew her better than anyone, forces Greta to quit her boring job, to leave her rental property in Devonport, to apply for a passport and take a long haul flight to her first destination: New York City. It’s the first stop on a whirlwind tour, and we get to come along for the ride.

Addressed to Greta is the third novel by Fiona Sussman, a former GP turned fiction writer. Her second book, The Last Time We Spoke, won the Ngaio Marsh Award for Crime Fiction in 2017. This new novel is a departure for Sussman as well as Greta. Sussman ventures here into cosy and warm territory, in a story that deals with large issues in familiar and comfortable settings. This book will appeal to readers of Charity Norman, Nicky Pellegrino and Sarah-Kate Lynch.

Sussman’s writing is strong and evocative – the novel glowed whenever landscapes or cityscapes were described. With international travel off the cards this year, anyone desperate for armchair travel will find plenty to satisfy in this book. Beautiful food is eaten – Greta loves to eat, especially cake and chocolate – and interesting strangers – morticians and architects and pilots – start out as acquaintances, but become her friends. Greta’s earnestness allows her to experience the world in a way that garners the envy of some more worldly characters. She changes from a woman who blushes at magazine covers promising to tell you ‘Ten Risky Ways To Excite Your Lover’ into a woman who initiates a sexual encounter for the pure joy of the experience.

Sussman keeps the momentum up throughout the novel, even when it could have easily stagnated with plenty of flashbacks and memories alongside the present day action. I’d hoped for more pit stops on the holiday, but appreciate the novel would be twice the length if Greta travelled any longer. Sussman sidesteps technology to bask in the romance of hand-written letters and pay phones. There’s something touching about the voice of Walter speaking to Greta through the letters he has left her, and his presence feels strong despite only featuring briefly in flashbacks.

Greta’s trip is a lens through which we can all learn new things, whether they are about the impermanence of humankind, the value in opening oneself up to the world, and the essential understanding that ‘ You cannot change what has already happened…only what you choose to take with you.’

Sussman’s created an oddball in Greta Jellings, a character who suffers from verbal diarrhoea and innappropriate admissions. Greta is lovable in many ways yet incredibly blind to her own naivety; she’s upset when someone calls her Gretchen yet she tells a Rwandan man named Daniel that she thinks he has ‘a white man’s name’. She’s horrified by other traveller’s rudeness, but has no boundaries herself, particularly when questioning Daniel about the genocide; she’s angry at another woman’s prejudice against homosexuals, but she judges nearly everyone she meets about all sorts of things, finding herself shocked when they don’t fit into her stereotypical assumptions. While the characters in the book were always ready to forgive Greta her transgressions, it might be more difficult for some readers to do so.

Greta seemed older than she was supposed to be – twenty to thirty years older, a woman with outdated ideas and ettiquette. Her choice not to have a mobile phone fit with her character, however her disconnect and ignorance of the world around her seemed at times far-fetched – the only way to explain it would be to say that Greta has never used the internet, which in today’s world, doesn’t seem possible.

While the book is cut through with humour, mostly through Greta’s faux pas, the novel is at it’s heart a story about the burden of solitary life. Greta has no one – her former neighbours changed their personalities as well as their address, and she mourns the loss of their companionship; her mother has died and left her diaries full of secrets causing her more pain; and Walter, her best friend and the man who could never love her as she loved him, died from liver cancer, complicated by HIV. She’s worried about disappointing people, so she pushes them away, even when she’s hungry for touch and for real connection. On her travels, she discovers a profound truth: ‘People were meant to be with others. Even the elderly stationmaster defined himself by his significant other. There was power in the plural – the couple, the family, the team, the town. Shared decisions, shared grief, shared joys and burdens.’ And so Greta breaks down her barriers, little by little.

It’s also through travel that she learns another lesson, one that travel is especially skilled at teaching: ‘For a second time on the trip, the significance of Greta’s life zoomed to blend with a bigger backdrop. Her story was just one pixel in a vast canvas. It was oddly comforting, knowing that nothing mattered quite as much as she’d always believed it did.’ Against the pain and suffering of millions around the globe, Greta is able to put her own challenges into perspective, allowing herself some grace and dignity to change her life, to determine for herself what the next step should be.

Addressed To Greta is a charming novel that traverses the globe and the intricacies of human relationships. I hope many readers find comfort in her travels, the happiness she manages to find, and her search for the perfect pair of shoes.

Categories
Book Reviews Victory Park - Rachel Kerr

Book Review: Victory Park by Rachel Kerr

Mākaro Press, Contemporary Fiction, NZ RRP $35.00

The cover of Victory Park, the debut novel by Rachel Kerr, has an image of the Bowl of Brooklands on it, with two people standing defiantly on the stage. Although this novel is set in Wellington, and not New Plymouth, the two figures in silhouette captured perfectly how I imagine the main character, Kara, and her son Jayden: a woman raising her son alone, standing strong against the difficulties of life.

Rachel Kerr, a graduate of the International Institute of Modern Letters, started Victory Park as her MA thesis under the guidance of Emily Perkins. Kerr’s debut is a slim, unassuming novel – yet the short chapters succinctly and carefully deliver a series of intense dramatic events that outline the devastations of deception and the sorrow of disappointment. Published by Mākaro Press, who published the award-winning novel Auē by Becky Manawatu in 2019, the characters in Victory Park are New Zealanders navigating personal triumphs and defeats, and discovering what it means to live an honourable life.

Kara, a widow, lives in a rundown set of flats called Victory Park. Jayden is starting school now he’s five, along with his new friend Rafe, who has moved into the flats recently with his mother Bridget. A friendship builds between the women, an uneasy bond of laughter and disillusion. Bridget is unlike the other residents: she’s wealthy, living in the flats only because her husband Martin’s business is under investigation for Ponzi-like corruption. Everything about Bridget screams money – her clothes, her car, the paintings she’s hiding in her flat – and despite what people say, despite their warnings, Kara grows close to her.

Their friendship is the relationship at the heart of the novel. Romance is peripheral, and usually transactional: Bridget’s entanglements hint at her love of a man’s money as much as his personality. Kara is grieving and unwilling to date, and she’s got enough on her plate, metaphorically. Literally, her plate is almost empty. She’s eking out her meagre funds from her home-based childcare job to keep herself and Jayden fed and warm, but she’s mostly happy. Bridget, on a much-reduced allowance that’s still more than Kara earns each week, is miserable. While Kara tries to move on from her partner Jimmy’s death, Bridget weeps about losing her wine and her boat. Yet despite their differences, the friendship feels real. The scenes with Bridget and Kara are delightful and interesting. Their dialogue crackles and the hurt inflicted made me wince. There was a real sense of the forces that bring them together as friends, and shows how some disparities cannot be bridged by affection.

The novel posits Bridget and Kara as opposing figures: as well as contrasting wealth and poverty, the novel looks at love when it’s abundant and when it’s insufficient. Although she hasn’t much money in her bank account, Kara has a lot of love to give. She’s a natural caregiver, and we see from her older daughter Alisha that she can raise a good child. Kara has time and energy for everyone – ‘Kara waved her in and gave her a hug – she looked like she needed it’ – but she has no time or money to look after herself. Her body shakes with a nasty cough that worsens as the novel progresses. Kara has a respectful and warm relationship with her own mother, Robyn, whereas Bridget argues with her mother. Bridget hasn’t much love for anyone, not even her own son. Even though there was a slight reference to why Jayden might call his mother ‘Kara’, it didn’t seem in character. It seemed more like something Rafe might have done. Rafe is a difficult child, often misbehaving, spoilt and rude, and Kerr makes clear we are to blame his parents, who are too consumed with their own selfish desires to parent him. Bad parenting can happen in any household – but not all households are headed by a man like Martin. Rafe hasn’t stood a chance.

Victory Park looks at the idea of luck, and its antithesis: moving up in the world via ‘hard work’. Bridget and Martin are both attractive – Martin is described ‘like a marble statue – cheekbones, delicate curls, eyelashes that caught the last of the light’, and how you look is all down to chance. These are people for whom luck plays a major role in their success. Even Bridget’s failure – a school that had to close down – doesn’t impact her in any meaningful way, and she moves on without much damage to her life. Another character discusses their theory about how the ‘luckiest people’, those with the ability to make the most of opportunities, end up with a type of brain damage, that ‘you could see actual changes in their brain on a scan.’ Is this why Martin and Bridget are so awful? Or is it that they were awful before, and with money and success they were able to hurt so many more people?

Whereas Kara, the novel implies, would be kind and caring no matter her financial position. She helps her neighbours. She volunteers at school. She pays for her mother’s vet bills, even when she can’t afford to. Would money and success and ‘luck’ change Kara? Possibly. But we might never know. Kara doesn’t yearn for more, she only yearns for peace, for love, for security, for family. Bridget tries to talk her into wanting more than just a low-paid job that’s essentially a babysitter – ‘You’ve talked yourself into thinking it’s okay because you have to do it. But you don’t really have to. Just go learn something new,’ exposing her privilege her, assuming people can learn something new simply by wanting to, and not realising that time and money play an enormous part in whether someone can change direction.

The novel is meticulously plotted and executed, and Kerr’s writing is simple and effective, tending toward clean and dry rather than poetic. Occasionally it felt that the beauty of language was explicitly denied instead of welcomed, although there were moments when the writing revelled in its ability to create magic. One passage that kept the dry storytelling voice and also sunk a little deeper into the lyrical: ‘The last of the grey light lingered in the purple silk of the kite, which was buoyed by the same updraft as the gulls. It dawdled and gently descended, inhaled and filled, swooped up in a great whoosh before pivoting and returning. The sky above was still blue but completely drained of brightness.’

I saw Kara as that kite, a delicate fragment buffeted by people and circumstance, but finally able to find enough air to inhale fully and soar.

Categories
Book Reviews Remote Sympathy - Catherine Chidgey Uncategorized

Book Review: Remote Sympathy by Catherine Chidgey

Victoria University Press, RRP $NZ35.00, Historical Fiction/Literary Fiction

Catherine Chidgey returns to Germany for Remote Sympathy, the same setting as her Acorn Foundation Fiction Prize-winning novel The Wish Child. Though we’re not in Berlin this time: this novel is set in Buchenwald, a labour camp near Weimar. This remarkable and moving novel features a doctor with a failed hope of saving cancer patients with his Sympathetic Vitaliser machine; a young mother with ovarian cancer; and her husband, the administrative director of the labour camp. Together, these stories form an unusual and compelling triangle of hope, despair, fear and courage set against the horror and anguish of the Holocaust.

I sometimes wonder whether art created from the history of World War II can give us a glimpse of the reality, or if they only move us towards a mythologised version of events. Remote Sympathy seems to acknowledge this worry (doesn’t the title itself refer to its place in being able to create sympathy only from afar?) by giving us the narrative as imagined records of history. The narrative is broken into four: letters from Doktor Lenard Weber to his daughter, Lotte; the imaginary diary of Frau Greta Hahn; the transcribed post-war interviews with Sturmbannfuhrer Dietrich Hahn; and, finally, the ‘personal reflections’ of the inhabitants of Weimar.

Each character of the novel reveals and conceals themselves in their account of the war. Greta and Dietrich offer parallel versions of leaving Munich and moving to Buchenwald, where Dietrich undertakes a new position at the camp. It can be hard to believe Greta would have been so naive and as ignorant of the nature of the camp as she was portrayed, but this is the point: all our minds are exceptionally clever at deception, we are all of us working to maintain the beliefs we hold, even in the face of extraordinary evidence to the contrary. When Greta falls ill, Dietrich panics, and while thousands die around him, he goes out of his way to secure a miracle – using all his contacts and power to have Doktor Lenard Weber sent to Buchenwald so he can use his Sympathetic Vitaliser to cure Greta.

Dietrich’s narrative offers yet another example of the blinkered mind. His slippery, unreliable interview details the camp in juxtaposition to Lenard’s letters. He’s forceful in his insistence that he did everything to keep the record straight, and when he admits to stealing the gold taken from cremated prisoners, we see an evasive mind unable to comprehend its hypocrisy. He describes the actions of the SS toward prisoners who were dead on arrival at the camp as verification of their goodwill – ‘We did our best with them; even those dead on arrival received their own number.’ Dietrich’s faith in Germany, in the Party, and the Aryan superiority, could easily make him a stereotypical Nazi we’ve seen before, and the introduction of Doktor Weber into the Hahn family villa pulls the story away from cliche and into its own.

In his letters, Doktor Weber doesn’t flinch at recalling both his successes and his failures. He divorced his Jewish wife, leaving his young daughter with her mother, in the hope that doing so might save them both, only to place their destiny to forces outside of his control. He used his Sympathetic Vitaliser (a machine that sent electrical currents through the body, in the hope that the patient will be cured through ‘remote sympathy’) on Greta, aware that he couldn’t help her – and he hid his medical skills when he was in the camp. He didn’t look at medical x-rays of his patients, ‘not because they showed how quickly death can grow inside a person, how little control we have, but because they showed the failure of my grand idea.’ His vanity and selfishness, alongside his generosity of spirit, made him a wonderfully human character.

With their flaws and virtues, the characters in Remote Sympathy showcased the darkness inherent in human nature and the eternal battle of how to recognise evil. When Lenard shows his machine to his supervisor at the Holy Trinity Hospital in Frankfurt before the war, the older doctor says, ‘Sympathy? That’s a few hundred years out of date, at least.’ Chidgey’s novel suggests that sympathy is never out of date, not ever out of fashion, and our ability to care for people unlike ourselves is something to cherish and nourish, lest division forces us apart.

The ‘found’ narratives – the letters, diary, and interview – seemed obvious devices to launch into the story but they don’t detract from the novel: Remote Sympathy is spell-binding, a beautiful and sorrowful elegy to a time in our recent history that still has much to teach us in our modern world. Remote Sympathy lets the reader fully into the interior world of another. They also work toward the theory of how truth can be revealed and also concealed: like the photographs Lenard processes in the labour camp of the atrocities of war, exposing the composed images, the letters, diary and interview capture their story and expose it. One character posits that ‘if there was no evidence of that moment, then who was to say it ever happened?’ The precarious nature of history relies upon our belief in the stories we tell, to ourselves and others. The fourth narrative, the ghostly ‘we’ of the Weimar residents, lends a fairy-tale-like voice to the novel. It felt like an incantation, a chant of warning.

Chidgey’s attention to language and her craft has resulted in a magnificent book full of passages of sublime description and hidden allusion: ‘She breathed in and out, in and out, her eyes fixed on the garden just beyond the open French doors. It was in full bloom: little patches of cornflowers and clusters of purple pansies, and the apple-scented climbing roses trained over a wire archway that led nowhere in particular. And the geraniums: abundant splatters of pink and red, brighter and more profuse than any we’d grown in our Munich windowboxes, glowing in the last of the light.’

I could quote from this novel all day to explain its wonders, but you should read it instead. The words entered my mind, the rhythm and the spark of them sending reverberations through my body: these feelings perhaps only a remote sympathy, but sympathy nonetheless, for the characters, their hope, and their suffering.

Categories
Book Reviews Bug Week - Airini Beautrais Uncategorized

Book Review: Bug Week by Airini Beautrais

Victoria University Press, RRP NZ$30.00, Short fiction collection

Award-winning poet Airini Beautrais’s short fiction collection, Bug Week, deftly steps from story to story exploring various perspectives – both geographical and personal. Beautrais slides her characters and their lives under her microscope – a young woman trying to move on from heartbreak, a male teacher fantasising about his young student teacher, an older female teacher who has become an ‘object of general revulsion’, an albatross at an open mic night.

I like short fiction. A lot. I enjoy the brevity, the impact of the story. In a collection of stories, the worries and niggles that press on the writer’s mind come through, sneaking and snaking through the characters and the narrations, no matter how diverse. In Bug Week, these are clear – our transgressions and our attempts to disassociate ourselves from the natural world, love and sex, death and birth. Although quite different in tone and setting, the strongest stories from Bug Week reminded me of stories from Claire Vaye Watkin’s Battleborn, particularly Watkin’s story ‘The Archivist’.

Beautrais’s stories are concerned with bodies and flesh and their uses and their decay, pitting humans against and alongside animals. Bodily functions and animal desire give many stories their heartbeat – hands and legs and touching waists and strange naked bodies like ‘peeled crustaceans’. Often the characters dislike bodies, the dirtiness of them. In the story ‘A pair of hands’, the controlled Richard is confronted by the gory reality of our physical selves, observing of the hands that the ‘severed ends were wiggly – lobes of fat, dangling tendons.’ In ‘Bug Week’, the main character likes her lover’s bed sheets clean ‘as if there had been nothing bodily happening in them’. This character is like many others in the rest of the stories, yearning for organisation and cleanliness and purity. ‘I just want some semblance of order in my life,’ she says, but it’s clear containment isn’t possible: nature will burst through any constructs we create to maintain control.

The inevitability of death is the rotting underworld you sense beneath most of the stories. The title story, ‘Bug Week’, is an off-beat entry into the world of the collection. The major themes of fertility, sex, death and boredom are introduced through the unnamed main character who works at a museum. She’s bored in her marriage, disgusted by the banality and reality of her messy life, and embarks on a shortlived affair with an entomologist who spends time in a ‘microscopic daze’. Some charming sentences mingle with the grotesque – the entomologist’s office was ‘piled to the ceiling with filing drawers, each with a little pinned death inside.’

Most of the stories work well, thought a few of them are definite highlights. The story ‘Billy the Pirate Poet’ stood out for its light touch and dirty confessional style. Amy, the main character, remembers a friendship and the summer it all fell apart, looking back from middle-age. She details the way she lived, the intimacies of youth, now replaced with the intimacies of motherhood. Regrets are put under the microscope here, and one sentence drew together the bittersweet sadness of aging: ‘Someday I looked in the mirror and saw lines forming around my eyes, the beginnings of grey, and knew that possibilities had narrowed themselves, that I wouldn’t live forever.’

The biological nature of life hides on the edges of many stories. In one story, pregnancy is described: ‘bodies grew inside our bodies and emerged out of them, and screamed, and fed, and grew’, placing the birth alongside a butterfly’s metamorphosis, an emergence into the world.

Another highlight was the story ‘A summer of scents’. Smells and colours permeate all the stories, but this one uses it to greater effect. Beautrais’s style and confidence abound in this story. Again there are references to microscopes and the rank reality of nature – ‘the lake smelled faintly of microscopic algae’. The story centres on the inhabitants of an apartment block in post-Communist Germany, and gently reminds us that life is forever changing. Herr Rabe knows that change is necessary: ‘The other option was to remain here, and that was simply worse.’

The final story is titled ‘A quiet death’, though the death in the story is anything but quiet. The narrator is able to see her body from the afterlife, and she sees it, already ‘savaged by disease’, now defiled and desecrated. Though this is an awful and sickening act, the narrator isn’t overwhelmed. She sees this as merely another moment in which women are destroyed. It’s a sombre ending to a collection of stories that have moments of softness, humour and gristly detail.

Categories
Book Reviews The Swimmers - Chloe Lane Uncategorized

Book Review: The Swimmers by Chloe Lane

Victoria University Press, RRP NZ$30.00, Fiction

Content warning: spoilers

Chloe Lane’s debut novel, The Swimmers, follows Erin Moore over the course of one Queen’s Birthday long weekend. The annual Moore family lunch, usually held at her mother’s house in Wellington, is up at the family farm this year – because her mother lives there now. The five days in the novel are a heady, crushing family drama full of mistakes, small glories, loss and love.

The novel begins with Aunty Wynn driving Erin from Auckland, where she now lives and works as an intern at an art gallery, to the family homestead near the Kaipara Harbour. Erin’s life is a classic mid-twenties mess: a fledgling career, a messy love affair, a relationship with her mother that is fracturing further every day. Her mother, Helen, was diagnosed with motor neurone disease a year earlier, and now her condition has deteriorated significantly. So much so, that she’s moved up north again, to live with her sister and brother. Erin is perplexed at the decision. But as the next five days play out, Erin realises she knows only the woman as her mother, and that she knows nothing about her mother as a sister, as a daughter, as a woman. This is a dynamic that most of us come to comprehend as we grow older: no matter how close we are to someone, they remain unknowable and mysterious even to the end.

The family dysfunction and odd interplay is familiar to most people – aren’t all families dysfunctional in some way? The characterisation is lightly drawn yet compelling, the scenes in which Uncle Cliff and Aunty Wynn have their toast – cosy and alienating at the same time. Erin feels like a loner, but she discovers over this weekend that she’s never alone, that she has a family, whether she likes them or not, that she’s one of the ‘necessary cogs in the one family machine’.

The crisis at the heart of The Swimmers is Helen’s decision to end her life. Wynn tells Erin the plan on their drive north, and the reverberations from the shock of this send Erin into meltdown. She finds herself enlisted to carry out the small details, and the large ones too, that will help her mother’s ‘Final Frolic’ go to plan. Erin is devastated and yet composed. Despite her grieving journey for her mother that began with the first signs of MND, Erin is able to help pull together the necessary ingredients – Nembutal and all.

The first-person narration is hypnotic and engaging. Erin describes the world and herself with punchy language: ‘…whenever I see photos of myself from this time, I think of the expression ‘bright-eyed and bushy-tailed’ and how much I looked like the opposite…More like I’d been through the wash too many times. Faded out. Less there.’ The prose continues like this, fuss-free and unassuming, which makes the violence of the emotional punch all the more powerful. It’s not a long book, but it pulls you into the lives of Erin, Helen, and Wynn with such force that you cannot escape The Swimmers draft. The ‘Tuesday’ section, the day Helen has chosen to seal her fate, feels much longer than it is. The events of that Tuesday featured several uncanny moments that resembled episodes from my own life, so that I read it sobbing, my whole body upset and reeling. Thinking about it now, my head tightens and I feel overwhelmed with sadness. One simple sentence, ‘We bore it out together’, tightened the moment perfectly with five ordinary words. Lane has captured such depth and heartache, sorrow and truth – I cannot remember the last time I was so moved by fiction.

The main character, Erin, is a failure and a success. These two ideas are what the novel grapples with, in many aspects of life – sport, artistic endeavours, relationships. Erin is worried about making the wrong decision, repeating the idea that ‘I didn’t trust myself to come out on top. And that’s what I was afraid of most: losing more than I already had.’ She’s worked hard all her life – trained hard for her swimming races, practicing her art, studying art history, curating her first show, trying to find love – and yet she’s failing at it all. Working hard doesn’t guarantee success. Success doesn’t make someone, or something, good. Wynn, Helen, Erin and her cousin Bethany are all struggling with fear and confidence, ambition and reward. They feel brave, and they make mistakes. They take a chance, they lose. The women – and this is a book populated and interested in women – work stubbornly toward their goals. Some are mundane goals like following the black line up and down the pool, others are considerably more frightening.

The Moore women in The Swimmers are a case study in how we behave under pressure. How we flail around in life when we don’t know how to live. The Swimmers explores beauty and ugliness, in art and in life; it’s a close study of the perfect imperfection of life. The necessary grotesque; the fleeting moments of happiness.

Categories
Book Reviews Sprigs - Brannavan Gnanalingam

Book Review:Sprigs by Brannavan Gnanalingam

Lawrence & Gibson Publishing, RRP NZ$30.00, Contemporary Fiction

Content Warning: spoilers and graphic content.

Trauma in fiction is commonplace; conflict is the driver of story. Sexual assault and rape have become entrenched in fiction of all kinds – an online search brings up articles titled ‘Why is there so much rape in Fantasy Fiction?’ A search for Booker Prize-winning novel Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee bring up an online search result list of several academic essays with titles like ‘Rape and Silence in JM Coetzee’s Disgrace’. It’s almost a trope: only it’s far too brutal and too damaging to be reduced in that way. At the beginning of Sprigs by Brannavan Gnanalingam there’s a content warning, letting you know what’s coming up. I know a few people might stop reading then, and I believe that’s the point. Gnanalingam is asking for your consent to tell this story.

This sensitivity and insight are characteristics only a few of the characters in this novel possess. The story is set over a few weeks in September, 2018, and the novel is broken into four parts: The Game, The Party, The Meeting, and The Trial. The Game section starts on a Saturday afternoon, with a Prem 1 final between two fictional Wellington secondary schools, Grammar and St Luke’s. We dive straight into the world of the St Luke’s team, weaving through the minds of their coach, the players, the parents, the principal, the girls from sister-school Simeon College watching from the sidelines. The scholarship player, Richie, poached from the state school for his rugby skills, stands out from his private school peers with his considerate nature – and his ethnicity. It was his mind that I wanted to inhabit in this part of the novel, but it sweeps from one perspective another, moving from character to character like the rugby ball is passed between players. The game ends, the after-party begins.

I recognise the party. I was at these parties ten years earlier than Priya and Liv and Jess, but they don’t seem to have changed much, only the cell phones now have cameras. The same boys drink and leer, the same cars park in the paddock. The same rumours the following day, too – who did what to who, which girl ended up comatose in the shower after simultaneously vomiting and shitting herself. Boys from these parties who once barked at girls they thought were unattractive are now married with children.

At Gnanalingam’s party, the teenagers drink and feel out of place. Nobody seems sure of themselves – the curse of adolesence. They mingle and hook up. A young girl, drinking for the first time, blacks out in the corner. This is how The Party section ends, with a young girl who ‘felt sleep taking over, a brief respite while another upheaval took place in her stomach’. Then, something happens. A violent, masochistic sexual assault. The details of the actual assault are never told directly – it’s described, obliquely, later in the book through differing viewpoints, so as a reader we don’t understand how the situation went from a sleeping girl to a gang rape. And does it matter that we don’t know how it happened? Do we need to know the details, who did what when? Gnanalingam’s novel makes clear that these facts are unnecessary. The rape happened, and there are no excuses.

The Meeting section continues in the same way, swinging from one character to the next. We never hear from the victim in this section, the longest of the book. We work our way through more characters – journalists, a police officer – and wade through more from the teachers, the principal, the students of St Luke’s. The omniscient voice is competent and gives the sense of the rippling effect of any action. The use of this style is particularly effective in certain scenes, such as the Fight Club created by the Year 13 students at St Luke’s, although at other times it isn’t as compelling, and more than once I found myself thinking how Gnanalingam could’ve structured the book slightly differently. The Slap by Australian writer Christos Tsiolkas came to mind, where eight characters all tell a single story, giving us differing and raw narratives that maximise the personal, because this is when Gnanalingam’s writing is strongest – in the moments his writing pierces the skin of the characters.

And then: The Trial. The final section of Sprigs. Here, in a marvellous spin, the point of view drills right into the voice that we have been waiting for the entire time – the victim. All the noise and information gathered in the first three sections has been gathered like wood to build a bonfire and when she begins to speak, the spark is lit. The victim says, ‘It’s my story,’ and in this section, and only this section, is that true. When writing in first-person, Gnanalingam’s writing flows and grows incandescent with heat. But you can’t put it down, you must read on, and be burnt. The victim reclaims her story, her power, and the novel comes alive.

Even in a serious and dramatic story, Gnanalingam navigates the subtle ironies of life with an acerbic and dry wit. A joke about trying to fit in another fundraising for St Luke’s through the Old Boys’ association was a great example of his comedic timing: how to add another to the long list that includes the ‘…old boys’dinner, old boy’s darts night, old boys’ newsletter, old boys’ foundation, old boys’ midwinter dinner, old boys’ spam email, old boys’ bingo night, old boys’ spring dinner, old boys’ pool night, old boys’ commemorative annual jersey, and old boys’ autumn dinner.’ The joke is both bitter and also works to reinforce the issue with certain schools and how they raise boys. When the principal, Denver, looks back on his poor performance in a television interview, he thinks, ‘He should have said something about the school and its tradition and its aim to raise good, decent men.’ Denver means this statement. He believes this is what the school is attempting to do, and if the people in charge are so blinkered, then it seems that only something revolutionary will create change. Throughout Sprigs, the questions around masculinity and New Zealand’s culture are raised, but the novel doesn’t moralise. It examines and interrogates, and finds only slivers of good, so fine they are almost non-existent.

Categories
Book Reviews The Girl In The Mirror - Rose Carlyle

Book Review: The Girl In The Mirror by Rose Carlyle

The Girl In The Mirror, the debut novel from Rose Carlyle, billed as one of those books you can’t put down. One of those special books that come along every once in a while and whisk you away to another world, the intrigue and the drama capturing your attention and not letting go until you turn the last page. Often, I don’t find these sort of claims pan out. I like to sleep. I own a lot of bookmarks, and I’m happy to slip one into the pages of even the most enthralling of novels.

But, it turns out they might be right. I read this book – a racy, pacy thriller about gorgeous Australian twins and their battle for their multi-billion dollar inheritance in two sittings. I opened the book in the afternoon and read the first few chapters. ‘Very professional, very slick, very fun,‘ I thought. I wrote some of my own novel after that, drank a late afternoon coffee, and watched an episode of Unorthodox before going to bed. I will read some more of that book, I thought, and then I will sleep.

Was it the coffee? Maybe. But I didn’t go to sleep until 2 am, once I made it to the very end of the book. I couldn’t stop reading. I couldn’t put it down. The promises made on the blurb were true.

I have read that Carlyle set out to write a novel like this, one that is ‘unputdownable’. She’s clever with her plot twists, heavy-footed on the adrenaline. The prologue explaining the circumstances leading to the extraordinary ‘mirror-twins’ Iris and Summer was gripping and led straight into the incredible story.

The plot is full of money and glamour and sex: I can imagine the film this will make. Almost a love-child of Dead Calm and Succession, if Logan Roy made his successor dependent on procreation, and his daughters were twisted versions of Jessica and Elizabeth from Sweet Valley High. Locations are exotic – Thailand, the Seychelles – and the women are beauty queens. Ruthless beauty queens.

To describe the story would be to give away spoilers. And this is a book you need to read to enjoy the twists. The twins scenario is ripe for manipulation and deception, and Carlyle deftly sets the stage for their devious behaviour. First-person narrators like Iris provide wonderful opportunity for untrustworthy tales, and when you have twins so identical no one can tell them apart, there’s plenty of scope for tricks. As a reader, you feel you are in safe hands – Carlyle writes as though she’s been at this work for many years and knows all the tricks. As a recent graduate of the University of Auckland’s Masters of Creative Writing course in 2017 (Carlyle was in the same class as Amy McDaid, author of Fake Baby), it’s a remarkable display of both tension and playfulness.

The Girl In The Mirror has been published with a splash. Carlyle has an international publishing deal; the US rights sold in a bidding war. The film rights have been sold. What incredible success! It’s exhilarating to see a writer from New Zealand enjoy such a welcome with her first published novel.

It’s not a novel with a ‘meaning’ – unless it’s ‘Enjoy the ride’. It’s a thriller; an escape from reality, pure entertainment that might keep you awake until the early hours of the morning, unable to put it down.