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Book Reviews Dance Prone - David Coventry

Book Review: Dance Prone by David Coventry

Early in Dance Prone, the new novel from David Coventry, two members of the post-hardcore band Neues Bauen, Conrad Wells and Tony Seburg, both experience trauma – on the same night, at the same time. Different trauma, although Conrad circles around and around the idea that these events are connected, and the rest of his life is weighed down by the burden of finding peace. Healing is a step too far, for the boys in this band, for the women they abuse and neglect, no matter the depth of their artistic desires and their philosophical interior lives. Dance Prone is a novel that interrogates music and it’s capacity for producing societal change, the bonds of friendship and family, and the manner in which we avoid confronting ourselves with the truth.

Conrad is the guitar player and the driver of the band’s dirty, run-down van, navigating them through snowstorms to each new venue on their 1985 tour. Concerts are described in brutal language, and this vicious vocabulary creates a vivid and clear sensation of a post-punk concert. In these scenes, and everywhere else the music or the songwriting talents of the characters are described, Coventry’s energetic and multi-layered skill with words rises to the occasion. His disjointed and disordered style perfectly suits the themes of destruction and reconstruction explored by the musicians in the book – the breaking down of art’s ideas and meanings. Paloma, the Moroccan artist who moves on the periphery of the novel, when she meets the band at one of the artist colonies run by the academic enigma Joan George-Warren, says they make the ‘music after music after music.’ Dance Prone isn’t a clear cut narrative, either – it’s an attempt to create the novel in it’s essence: looking for the new, resisting the obvious, denying the familiar.

This ambitious desire to resist familiar forms and structures makes for a challenging read at times. Glorious detail (young women in the street: ‘Kiss-me mouths and boots, black lipstick and a kind of low-core goth’; the mention of a goat in the audience at a concert lifted to bleat into the microphone) sit beside sentences that sometimes drift into semantics, deep dives into the meaning of things sometimes as meaningless as cars changing lanes on the LA expressway. A long conversation between Conrad and a minor character named Blair should slow the pace later in the novel but instead becomes the glue to piece the puzzle together – who was raped, by whom? Can one experience be compared to another? Why do we remember and why do we forget? – and I found my concentration was held during these slower, opaque sections because of Coventry’s unflagging dedication to language and literary risk. When a cryptic sentence looms, deliberately vague and elusive, avoiding clarity the way Conrad avoids his feelings and his memories, I had a sense that if I could unlock this one sentence, then I might discover the meaning of the whole novel, or perhaps the meaning of life. So I continued to read, following the words to the next page.

David Coventry’s first novel, The Invisible Mile won the Hubert Church Award for Best First Book at the 2016 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards. His author biography explains that this book was described as ‘one of the most gruelling novels about sport ever written’. Dance Prone is also gruelling. Violence, loneliness, blood and sex fill the pages, and between the two novels, it’s clear that Coventry is committed to writing fiction that’s gritty and raw and true. The back of the book is packed with quotes from Carl Shuker and Kiran Dass and Alan McMonagle, all testament to the esteem in which Coventry is held.

Like the band members of Neues Bauen, the novel resists the easy option. It resists an easy read. The structure and language create a story that sits inside itself like a Matryoshka doll; only the dolls are cracked and reordered into a nest that takes time to stack. For those who persist, the novel splits open to show friendships decaying from deception in multiple locations, a haunting read that leaves you feeling desiccated and hollow.

The idea that punk, and many other art movements, is not about destruction, but reconstruction, weaves through Dance Prone. These men (and this book is about men, really, with the women supporting the action from the shadows) believe they can change their world with their music. Only it doesn’t. Conrad is the witness to the devastation, and the beauty, in the attempt.

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Book Reviews Nothing to See - Pip Adam

Book Review: Nothing To See by Pip Adam

To talk about Nothing To See without spoiling the fun is a challenge. Pip Adam’s new novel about sobriety, friendship, and technology follows up from her 2018 Acorn Prize for Fiction winner The New Animals. In this new novel, we follow Peggy and Greta, and for a while Margaret, from 1994 to 2006 to 2018, steeping ourselves in their lives. A plot that sounds almost banal when summarised results in a book impossible to put down.

The incredible cover drew me in to start with: a split face inverted, with bright yellow chunky font running just below their eyes. The joy continues inside the book, too. The novel is loosely divided into thirds, and it draws you in with hypnotic sentences and unsteady narrative. In the first part of the book, we meet Peggy and Greta and follow them from AA meeting to their flat to AA meeting. They make carrot sandwiches. They discover hummus at the dairy. A volunteer job at the Salvation Army shop offers some distraction from their painful desire to drink again and their equally powerful desire never to drink again. They sort clothes for the shop and they eat their lunch in the carpark and discuss their flatmates Heidi and Dell. At home, the phone rings, and no one is there.

I felt like I was holding my breath while I read. The writing’s like a frozen lake: with each step, with each phrase, I wasn’t sure the ice would hold my weight. A sentence declares one idea, and the next sentence contradicts it, leaving the reader to work hard to stay on the surface. It’s funny too. The humour has teeth, and it doesn’t let go.

My favourite scene from this section is a picnic at a local park. From the overladen picnic table to the dramatic volleyball game, it’s cringe after cringe after cringe until your brain cramps from the exertion.

Alcohol abuse and sobriety play an enormous part in this novel, and while the pull of the bottle withers somewhat for the main characters, it never dies away. Early sobriety’s a colossal change in lifestyle. The addict is forced to make a break in their life, a before and an after. They must reject their former self to make space for the new. This division is essential to the person learning to live sober, and it holds tightly to the stopwatch that marks the minutes since they left behind that other self. A few pages in, and, despite Peggy and Greta’s inability to do very much for themselves, they are obsessively keeping sight of the passing time since they stopped drinking, ‘…it was ten months and three weeks and two days.’ But is this division a satisfactory explanation for all the changes in their life? Not at all. The novel twists and turns away from a neat solution.

The second part of the novel sees Peggy and Greta move to another island, another city, one with hills and trains. The writing tightens a bit, the vocabulary extends, and Peggy and Greta move into their thirties. There’s a calm to them, and to the writing, that wasn’t present before, and it’s interesting to consider if perhaps this magnifies the evolving cohesion of Peggy and Greta, a smoothing out of rough edges.

And then comes page 237. Reader, I gasped. There’s no way to tell you what happened without spoiling the shock. The ice broke, just when I thought that it had hardened and solidified to be safe enough to run across.

This novel notices, unpicks, and analyses the limitations and discrimination inherent in bureaucracy and in the systems that govern us. We see a world resistant to change in order to help these women find work, find shelter, and feed themselves. It’s tempting to draw parallels between this and the systemic discrimination of people based on ethnicity and religion, disabilities, and health issues, in particular mental health.

The propellent in the story seemed to be the relationship between Peggy and Greta and Heidi and Dell, their former flatmates and fellow recovering alcoholics. The dynamics of the women kept the suspense factor high, and the novel casts friendship through a prism, watching the deterioration and evolution of connection through many years and in constantly changing environments.

This book melts the boundaries between language and computer code, human behaviour and mysterious text messages on a Tamagotchi phone. It investigates loss and heartbreak and growing up and saying goodbye. And this doesn’t even touch the edges of where this novel goes. It moves from AA meetings to an experiment with the simulation hypothesis of explaining our world. Unafraid to shine a bright light into dark corners, Adam’s novel Nothing To See is compelling literary fiction with a startling yellow spine – you won’t forget it in a hurry.

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Book Reviews The Secrets Of Strangers - Charity Norman Uncategorized

Book Review: The Secrets of Strangers by Charity Norman

Allen & Unwin, RRP $32.99, Fiction

7.30 am London. Not long before Christmas. A cafe called Tuckbox. A young man with a gun enters and a nightmare begins. Charity Norman explores what happens next in her sixth novel The Secrets of Strangers.

The story brims with suspense and energy, full of bubbly language that feels cosy and comfy even when we’re reading about violent and terrifying events. Norman writes characters with incredible depth – the people in her books fizz with detail. She wants us to see them as though they are real, believe in them. Her last novel, See You In September, was shortlisted for the Best Crime Novel at the 2018 Ngaio Marsh Awards for Crime Fiction, and Second Chances was a Richard and Judy Book Club Choice in the UK, so if you haven’t read any her books yet, and you enjoy fiction with a gripping plot, you need to remedy that.

The Secrets of Strangers moves quickly – short chapters lending the narrative a strapping pace. The main characters are introduced one by one – Neil, a former teacher now living rough; Abi, an ambitious solicitor on her fifth round of IVF; Mutesi, a carer from a nursing home having breakfast with her grandson; Eliza, a copper working as a negotiator; Rosie, a waitress. Although Norman now lives in New Zealand, the characters feel distinctly British. At times I thought it felt like a PG version of the Bodyguard television series with the original King of the North, Richard Madden. But less sex, and less violence. Although there is a dead body on the floor for most of the book, he’s mostly ignored, and sometimes I forgot he was there.

Secrets do abound in this book, not least the ones Norman keeps from the reader: Why is Neil homeless, what is the tragedy in Mutesi’s past, why doesn’t Abi tell her husband she’s taken a pregnancy test, who is Rosie, who is Nicola. Who is Sam? Why is he holding these people hostage?

These secrets, these hidden pasts, are often referred to in the story – we find out the horror of Mutesi’s past in Rwanda, we hear about Arthur’s lucky absence from the tube station in Balham that was bombed in World War II, an event that also featured in Ian McEwan’s Atonement. Norman reminds us constantly that our present selves are not always what they seem: past trauma is often hidden away, and we should be gentle in our appraisals of others.

The short chapters lend the story a pace that feels hectic and out of control, much like a hostage situation must feel like to the people involved. With each chapter change, and sometimes within a chapter, the character point of view switches, and we’re lifted out of one person into another with a speed that gives a couple of characters short shrift. It does give the novel the quality of a film, with quickly shifting camera angles. I admire Norman’s astonishing ability to throw many balls into the air – and catch them. There’s not one loose thread, not one idea or tangent that isn’t followed up on, and this thorough plotting is more difficult than it looks.

Later in the book, Mutesi speaks about the power of the radio. We hear Abi’s partner Charlie speak on the radio playing in the cafe. I thought of the radio in All The Light We Cannot See; of Serge Carrefax, born to the noises from the first wireless stations in C by Tom McCarthy; of Hinemoana Baker’s new collection of poetry Funkhaus, that takes the German word funken – a transitive verb meaning signal or ‘ to radio’ – and I think of the power of words. Words that travel along lines, in radio waves, words that we hear whispered into our ears. Sam finds a sense of peace when he tells his story to Eliza. He says it is the first time he feels heard. The first time someone truly listened. And I suppose that is all anyone might want, too: to speak and be heard. To feel a connection to others; to find community. To be supported by those people, and not hurt by them. The Secrets of Strangers offers us a glimpse into a tragedy that leads to friendship, with strangers that we might otherwise have passed by on the street.

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Book Reviews Fake Baby - Amy McDaid Fake Baby - Amy McDaid Uncategorized

Book Review: Fake Baby by Amy McDaid

Penguin Random House, RRP $36.00, Contemporary Fiction

Spoiler alert – plot points are discussed in this review

Last Halloween, I tied four sparkling fake spiders to our gate, to let families on our street know that we’d welcome trick-or-treating. My husband decided this wasn’t scary enough, so he retrieved the plastic baby doll that belonged to our young children and tied that to the gate as well. That plastic doll, when it was in the arms of my daughters, was cute and sweet. Once the doll was attached to the fence, it became the opposite: creepy, unsettling, alarming. 

 The title of Amy McDaid’s debut novel, Fake Baby, brings to my mind this doll. Of course, the fake baby in the book is a doll of much grander ambition – it is made from silicone, baked and hand-painted and weighted perfectly to mimic a real baby. The doll, a Reborn worth more than $5000, is stolen by one of the main characters, Jaanvi. The doll symbolises an idea interrogated in Fake Baby: what are the differences between fakeness and reality; where are the boundaries of pretence and authenticity? The doll and the act of playing with dolls, so acceptable when we were children, ceases to be considered ‘normal’ once we are adults. What is normal, this book challenges us. What is not? 

 A trio of characters forms the basis for the story: Stephen, Jaanvi, and Lucas. Three people who behave in ways that seem unfathomable to others, and sometimes even to themselves. Stephen is the first character we’re introduced to, and it’s in his chapters that McDaid’s most confident writing occurs. Although the very last parts of his story feel weaker than the other two storylines, the whole book to me is carried by the confident, playful, free prose in his passages. Even when the storylines felt a touch forced, it was the zest of language that captured my attention. McDaid’s writing was never fussy or flimsy, and the comedy of the writing feels fun and natural. 

 Stephen’s a man battling with the memories of his father. The two other characters, Jaanvi and Lucas, are also dealing with issues around parenthood – their relationships with their parents are tense and difficult, and these painful feelings form Jaanvi’s experience of being a parent herself. She loses her son when he is nine days old, flashbacks deepening our understanding of what this loss was like in real-time. All the characters in the novel find that disappointment and hurt destroy or maim their love for their parents. In one of Lucas’s flashbacks, his mother gives his childhood puppy to the neighbours. He peers through the hedge to watch the dog grow. His mother discards a beloved family pet, and in the same way, Lucas feels discarded and forgotten as an adult. Lucas and Stephen have both been hurt by the people who created them, and this damage leaves deep scars. Lucas sums up his thoughts about mothers succinctly when he watches ducks at Green Bay beach: ‘They did such a poor job of caring for their young.’ 

 I imagine Jaanvi would be horrified to hear this idea. She’s a mother willing to do anything to be a mother, to give love. She has the hope that all new parents have: that they won’t repeat the mistakes of their parents. Her theft of the doll may be exactly what she says – a coping mechanism, but for some this behaviour strays too far from the norm. Her husband doesn’t seem to find it comforting or healing, and their relationship suffers from the aftershocks of their loss. Edith, Lucas’s pharmacy customer, offers a counter view of mothers and parents when she says, ‘Mothers do what they can do to get through,’ and this could be what Jaanvi’s trying to do – doing what she can to get through her pain, albeit in a way that seems to be teetering on the edge of what is creepy and what is cute.

 The novel seems to suggest that everyone moulds their behaviour to fit what is considered ‘normal’ by others: we put ourselves on display, and we shift and mutate our behaviour based on the response from our audience. Jaanvi’s friend Ayla performs in this way – she displays herself on social media and then can behave to please, with statistics to help her figure out what’s acceptable, and what is not. It’s the gaze of others that determines whether we are merely eccentric or if we require psychiatric care, whether we need a cocktail of drugs or if we need to be hospitalised. 

 McDaid’s language in the book flickers with an off-beat whimsy; words like ‘cock-a-doodled’, ‘hoed into’ and ‘hullaballoo’ pop up. There are other childlike nursery rhymes referred to at times; Stephen sings himself Twinkle Twinkle little star, Winnie the Pooh is mentioned as a potential wise sage, and offer a light touch in moments of darkness for the characters. 

 One scene has stayed with me, from a book packed with memorable scenes: Stephen, cradling the fake baby, singing a lullaby – rock-a-bye-baby. Two men take the doll from him, call him a ‘pedo’. Once they realise it’s a doll, they damage the doll. and burn it and break it. This behaviour feels more gruesome because the same pain, the same damage, is inflicted on real children in the same ways when they should be loved and protected. It’s this balance between grim and harsh reality and the clever playfulness of language that keeps Fake Baby ticking along, weaving through Auckland, exploring the heartbreak and the small joys of the people who live there.