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
Author QandA The Disinvent Movement - Susanna Gendall

Q&A with Susanna Gendall

READ CLOSE: The narrator in The Disinvent Movement is interested in disinventing the world, one thing at a time. This is a wonderful idea – was this the starting point for the novel or did it come to as you explored your character?

SUSANNA GENDALL: The sections on the ‘Disinvent Movement’ were the first scenes that I wrote, so yes, I definitely started out with this idea in mind. The rest of the novel sort of grew out from there. But I guess the protagonist took this idea somewhere I hadn’t initially anticipated. I’d imagined it as an environmental and anti-capitalist movement, but as I got deeper into the book, it also became about who the character is and her whole conundrum, about her as an ecosystem under threat.

In the notes at the end of the book, you mention that one section started life on The Friday Poem at The Spinoff. Did you always plan the structure of the novel to be fragments, written as lyrical poetry and stories in miniature, or did the novel shift and change as you wrote?

I really liked the idea of fragments – this was a form I’d always been drawn to, and it felt like the right format for the narrator and her story, but I wasn’t entirely sure how they’d all fit together. I decided to just do the writing, and then piece them together. I didn’t start out thinking that I was writing ‘a novel’, though. I thought I’d just see what it turned out to be once I’d finished. This was quite freeing, I think. It wasn’t until near the end that I began to realise it was turning into a novel… This felt like a little joke from the universe, as I’d basically given up on writing one. I’d made several attempts, but they’d all fizzled out. I think I had certain preconceptions about what a novel was, and needed to blank these out in order to write one. The idea of genre has always seemed kind of constricting – I think it would be nice if we didn’t have to call a book a ‘novel’ or ‘a short story collection’ or a ‘memoir’ or whatever. I have fantasies about a bookshop with no sections, just ‘books’. This probably sounds like total hell to the people that sell them, though!

Tell us about your relationship with Paris and why you wanted to include the City of Love in your novel.

I have a bit of an ambivalent relationship with Paris – love-hate, possibly? It’s where I live about half the time, and I’ve always felt slightly removed from it – part of the deal when it’s not your home town. This was an aspect that I wanted to bring into the novel – which, in a way, reflected the narrator’s relationship with herself. It’s also a city where anonymity seems part its heartbeat. You can go for weeks without running into anyone you know. I guess I felt that this was the right backdrop for my anonymous narrator.

We would love to know which artists, writers, films, musicians and books have had an impact on your career and writing.

Wow, so many! In a way, everything you read and see and interact with is quietly having an impact on what and how you write . . . but I love Ali Smith and her playful yet political angle. Rachel Cusk’s work also resonates deeply with me, particularly the Outline trilogy. The French director Michel Gondry has been a big influence as well. When I first saw his films, I remember thinking that this was someone who was really pushing cinema somewhere exciting, going beyond plot. The Science of Sleep is a film that I can watch over and over. And, actually, dance has been very inspiring. There’s some really exciting choreographers around at the moment. A few years back I saw four short ballets by Tino Sehgal, Crystal Pite, Justin Peck and William Forsythe, which really shifted my approach to narrative, I think.

I like to think of novels sitting in conversation with each other. Could you tell us two or three other books you would like The Disinvent Movement to be in conversation with, books that would augment and inform a reader’s appreciation for your novel?

I read The Years, by Annie Ernaux after I’d written The Disinvent Movement, and it immediately struck me as a book that resonated with it – something about the way it blurs the personal and political, and also perhaps the distance she manages to achieve on her own life, as if she is looking down upon it. And perhaps The Notebook by Hungarian writer Ágota Kristóf, a dark, unsettling story, which I also read as a meditation on fiction.

What are you reading right now? What is on your TBR pile?

I’m reading two books at once at the moment, which is unusual for me, but I thought I’d try a new bedtime routine. Moby Dick, which I’ve been trying to get to for years, and which is absolutely blowing me away. The language is so rich and gorgeous . . . And Ducks, Newburyport, by Lucy Ellmann – a 1000-page book written in about three sentences. It’s got a bit of a Ulysses vibe but from the angle of a middle-age woman contemplating just about everything in the universe. I’m enjoying the challenge of reading two big, fat, wonderful books at once. I’m really looking forward to catching up with some of the exciting books to come out of Aotearoa over the past year as well – Bug Week, by Airini Beautrais, The Swimmers, by Chloe Lane. I’ve also been wanting to read Weather by Jenny Offill. There’s so much that I want to read at the moment.

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 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 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 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.