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.

Categories
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.

Categories
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.

Categories
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.

Categories
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.