Reviews of works by Diana Wichtel, Karl Ove Knausgaard, Redmer Yska, Gabriel Tallent, Chris Womersley and Jon McGregor.
Diana Wichtel’s compelling account of a search for her troubled father — who escaped from a train heading to a Nazi death camp — is freighted with emotional suspense.
REVIEW — MARION McLEOD Driving to Treblinka: A long search for a lost father Diana Wichtel (Awa Press, $45)
Diana Wichtel is our bestever television critic. Hands down. She writes stunning profiles and features, too. And now she’s written a stunning memoir.
Wichtel’s one-liners might owe something to her DNA. She was born to a New Zealand mother, Catholic, and a Polish father, a Jew who spoke seven languages.
More amazingly, in 1942 Wichtel’s father jumped from a train bound for Treblinka.
Such a pretty name for a death camp which ranks second only to Auschwitz in the horror stakes. The train was heavily guarded, the windows laced with barbed wire.
But Ben Wichtel found the narrowest of narrow gaps, jumped into the snow, rolled down the hill, and waited to be shot.
Finding himself alive, he hotfooted it into the forest, and in time to Canada, where he set up a fabricimporting business and employed Patricia Valentina Scantlebury from Roseneath, Wellington.
Ben Wichtel was 10 years older than his employee, and debonair, very different from her dates back home. Though it wasn’t all bouquets: “My mother told me he had insisted she become pregnant before he would marry her. He was nearly 40 and had lost everything. He wasn’t messing around.”
Wichtel, their second daughter, spent her childhood in Vancouver. There is also a younger brother. Photos lie, of course — family groups especially — but there were definitely fun times and pretty dresses. Grey times and good times: “Daddy Mad Face and Daddy Angel Face.”
Wichtel watched a lot of television in the basement, at a time when Kiwi contemporaries had to make do with radio. I Love Lucy was her favourite show but she also watched politics and current affairs with her father.
When she was 11, the family watched the Eichmann trial: “It’s here I first hear the word Holocaust. In my memory my mother thinks Eichmann should die. My father does not.”
Wichtel develops a string of compulsive rituals “to stop the bad things from finding us”. Lollies, for instance, needed to be consumed only in even numbers. “If I’m honest,” she adds, “they still do.”
But no amount of ritual can keep the bad things at bay. The tension in the house is palpable. She develops migraines. The family move to a rented house. They have to give away the dog. “Don’t ask questions,“her mother says.
Things fall apart. But there’s a solution: they will go to New Zealand. “You’ll be eaten by the Mau Maus,” says a schoolfriend. Though a much worse horror is revealed in a copy of the
New Zealand Herald mailed by relatives: the television page makes it clear that one solitary channel comes on at 2pm and finishes at 10.30pm with a prayer. Wichtel flatly refuses to go.
But go she must. Mother and three children land at Whenuapai Airport in 1964. Dad will come later. Wichtel is 14 and will never see her father again.
Driving to Treblinka, written some five decades after that arrival, has a cracker opening: “1450 GRAMS. I know the weight of my father’s brain.” Further medical details follow in a list which includes: “The diagnosis of his madness is psychosis caused by arterial sclerosis.” It’s a stunning beginning, a blow to the solar plexus.
Of course, lost fathers proliferate in print and in reality television these days. Just a couple of years ago, Wichtel reviewed in her Listener column a local example of the familyreunion genre, Lost and Found, which is still on our screens today. She dubbed the format “a catharsis-on-astick”, before confessing to being a soggy viewer herself.
Unsurprisingly, Wichtel’s take on the genre, announcing upfront that there will be no reunion, is not a sentimental tear-jerker, though there is much that is deeply, deeply sad. Wichtel weaves a much more complex, braided narrative that moves forward and backward in time and place, to ancestors in Poland and New Zealand, to adolescence in 60s Auckland, to her son and daughter, and to her young grandchildren. What have I done? she asks herself, as she writes a family history which will murder their innocence.
Of course, the book has a gripping detective strand, though what interested me equally, if not more, was the emotional suspense which builds as Wichtel confronts family skeletons on both sides. “Secrets and silences roll down the generations like something in the cells that can’t be unlearned.”
There were definitely fun times and pretty dresses. Grey times and good times: ‘Daddy Mad Face and Daddy Angel Face.’
“Remembering,” she says, “is an exercise in self-loathing.” She writes, wisely and well, of survivor guilt and transmitted trauma.
She is far too hard on her teenage self but later brings tears to the eyes when she describes dreams of her father “from which I wake flooded with relief, electrified by love”.
People ask Wichtel if she has closure now. No, and, she doesn’t want it. “There’s no closure, it’s better to stay in the stream of history. That’s where he is. It’s where he’s always been.”
REVIEW — ANTHONY BYRT Autumn Karl Ove Knausgaard (Harvill Secker, $38)
Not long after I started work on my book This Model World, I began reading
Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, a multi-volume 3500-page “autofiction” with an alarmingly Nazi title. It transformed the way I thought about the possibilities of first-person writing. My Struggle is overlong, often reads like a first draft, and spends inordinate pages unpacking the author’s banal anxieties and feelings of shame. But its directness also smashes through the over-crafted artifice of so much personal essayism, replacing it with the urgency and immediacy of a genuinely vulnerable “I”, and an actual, hard-lived “now”. All personal writing is a form of self-regard: Knausgaard is just more honest about this than many of us.
Autumn, his most recent book, is, once again, all about him — or at least his perceptions of his physical world. It begins with a letter to his unborn daughter, dated August 28: the cusp of summer and autumn in Scandinavia, when everything is abundant. Knausgaard doesn’t waste the fertility of the moment: “Now, as I write this,” he opens, “you know nothing about anything, about what awaits you, the kind of world you will be born into. And I know nothing about you. I have seen an ultrasound image and have laid my hand on the belly in which you are lying, that is all.” Immediately, he describes the births of her three older siblings: “a tiny child slipped out into my hands, slippery as a seal”; “when her head had emerged but not yet the rest of her body, she made a little sound with her lips”; “John… came out in a cascade of water and blood”.
Three lives beginning and one more on the way, all on the first page. It is the start of Knausgaard’s attempt to show his unborn daughter the world “as it is now: the door, the floor, the water tap and the sink, the garden chair close to the wall beneath the kitchen window, the sun, the water, the trees.” Over the next 190 pages, he describes singular objects, body parts, ideas or emotions, in vignettes rarely longer than two or three pages. The order seems random: the first cluster is Apples, Wasps, Plastic Bags, The
Sun, and Teeth; later, a group that includes Pain, Dawn, Telephones, Flaubert and Vomit. Flaubert’s sentences “are like a rag rubbed across a windowpane encrusted with smoke and dirt which you have long since grown accustomed to seeing the world through”. Just a page further on, “the initial burst of vomit is usually coarsest in texture, a moist mass containing small pieces and lumps”. From his head in a book to his head over a toilet bowl.
Much of the book’s time passes in Knausgaard’s studio at the bottom of the garden, where he can look back at his house and watch his family through the windows. This is where he is at his most insightful, creating heartbreaking images of a man alone inside himself despite the love of others. The most poignant essay in this regard is “Loneliness”, in which he reflects on how he inherited his urge to be alone from his father, who became an alcoholic late in life and drank himself into an early grave — a death that acts as the key event in My Struggle. “If everything that stirs between people made a sound,” Knausgaard writes: “…it would be like a chorus, a great murmur of voices would rise from even the faintest glimmer in the eyes. Surely he too must have felt this? Perhaps more powerfully than I do? For he started drinking, and drinking muffles this chorus and makes it possible to be with other people without hearing it… Or, the thought strikes me now with horror, maybe it was the other way round? Maybe he simply didn’t hear this chorus, didn’t know it existed and therefore didn’t become bound by it, but remained forever standing on the outside, observing how all the others were bound by something he didn’t understand?”
When he’s at his worst, though, Knausgaard’s observations are almost insultingly lazy. Photography is “part of what makes our culture different from those that preceded it”; the mouth “is where the sense of taste is located”; “frames form the edges of a picture and mark the boundary between what is in the picture and what is not”. And even a cursory glance at Wikipedia would have solved the mystery for him of how infant teeth grow.
The fact he doesn’t go online and find simple answers is also the point: Knausgaard craves — demands — wonder. In that sense, he’s not just a hungry writer (Knut Hamsun casts an unavoidable shadow over Knausgaard, as he does over many Norwegian authors) but a greedy one, too. Greed can be good, though, when it’s balanced by generosity. For all his tics, Knausgaard — weak, oversharing, willing to seem stupid for the sake of accurately describing love — is a staggeringly generous writer, finding ways to make the world look a tiny bit different, on every page.
Knausgaard is a staggeringly generous writer, finding ways to make the world look a tiny bit different, on every page.
REVIEW — JULIA WAITE A Strange Beautiful Excitement: Katherine Mansfield’s Wellington 1888-1903 Redmer Yska (Otago University Press, $40)
I’ve never given Wellington’s drains quite as much thought, at least not since Mr Murphy the drainlayer came with his assortment of long rods to clear blockages in the crumbling rocky bank behind our Wadestown house. But he materialised all heavy and florid of face, when I read Redmer Yska’s new book,
A Strange Beautiful Excitement: Katherine Mansfield’s Wellington 1888–1903. In it, Yska paints a city more menacing and exhilarating than colonial painter James Nairn’s comparatively picturesque Wellington Harbour (1894), which graces the cover as an unlikely foil. Yska spends much time on the open wooden drains that weaved through early Wellington like a web of fibre broadband, emerging, similarly, as a powerful social connector and leveller. Bad plumbing and a lack of sanitation brought the threat of death to everyone and contributed to the precarious state of the populace in 19th-century Wellington.
Katherine Mansfield’s presence in the capital has always felt thin, and knowing that she hated the place makes it seem painful, too. Wellingtonians have clung to the few remaining fragments of Mansfield’s life: the birthplace; the altered-beyondrecognition Chesney Wold on Karori Rd; and the sad hole that memorialises the destruction of the now “Phantom mansion” at 75 Tinakori Rd. The garish laser-cut sculpture of the writer rooted in Midland Park reflects a certain desperation to fix KM to the city of her birth.
A Strange Beautiful Excitement provides a rich account of the physical and social landscape of Mansfield’s youth. Collecting us at Karori for a tour through his city and her places, Yska is a friendly and generous guide. At Bolton St Cemetery, I scramble through the onion weed and graves to see the historical sites with Yska in what feels like real time. When he offers some back story, I can imagine Mansfield’s infant sister Gwen’s tiny coffin, the horse with plumes of ostrich feathers pulling the hearse, and the danger of typhoid — the whole gothic scene.
This potent, timely and original contribution awakens readers to a new way of thinking about history as something that can be personally traced and experienced on multiple levels. For me, Yska’s narrative represents generational change in its approach. He shows us where Mansfield’s beautiful grandmother Margaret Dyer lived, on the same street where he flatted and wrote university assignments in felt-tip pen. And it’s these kinds of details that personalise a pilgrimage to find the history, and wake it from its big sleep. But it’s not just KM’s story — it is a cast of generations whose stories bring the city to life in new and unexpected ways. The inspector of nuisances, a reluctant groom who preferred to slit his own throat than meet his bride at the altar; a lady struck down by a flying dinghy; and Samuel Revans, the New Zealand Company’s master of spin and great euphemiser of wind.
A superbly researched book, the last section takes us on a hunt for juvenilia, culminating in the discovery of what is now the earliest-known text by Mansfield, His Little Friend, uncovered by Yska following a hunch at Wellington Library. This find is at once exciting and curiously anticlimactic. Yska shows us the social forces that shaped KM, but we can’t really be any more certain about what made her a writer and turned her to the storytelling that cemented her in our cultural history. I imagine that the lacuna in this tale would greatly please her.
REVIEW — SUE ORR My Absolute Darling Gabriel Tallent (HarperCollins, $35)
American writer Gabriel Tallent has been as brave as his teenaged protagonist in his debut novel, My Absolute Darling, a gruelling tale of incest and courage.
Just as Nabakov did in Lolita, Tallent embeds us in the horrifying secret world of paedophilia. Unlike Nabakov, he chooses to sit on the shoulder of the victim rather than the perpetrator. This delivers a superbly crafted story with female empowerment at its heart, but it also risks trivialising the real-life devastation wreaked by longterm and systematic sexual abuse.
Fourteen-year-old Turtle Alveston lives alone with her violent, survivalist father, Martin, in the northern Californian wilderness near Mendocino. Both are gun fanatics. Turtle owns a range of weapons — firing them and cleaning them takes precedence over all other activities, including school work and social relationships. She has no choice, says Martin, but to prepare her arsenal. She must be ready for the Apocalypse.
Martin has been raping Turtle for years. Tallent refuses to allow us to look away from these scenes; they are sickening to read. However, equally unsettling is his characterisation of Turtle in the days and nights between the rapes. He presents her
It’s not just KM’s story — it is a cast of generations whose stories bring the city to life in new and unexpected ways.
Tallent owed it to his readers — and every child victim of rape — to document in a more honest way the escalating internal damage and trauma from years of abuse.
as a tough, scorpion-eating teen, dismissive about the sadistic torture. Some nights she is childishly perplexed to discover she wants the rapes.
Masochism and masking might be a fair representation of Turtle’s exterior persona, but Tallent owed it to his readers — and every child victim of rape — to document in a more honest way the escalating internal damage and trauma from years of abuse. He goes some way towards doing that, allowing Turtle brief and rare moments of fragility and weakness, but the tough carapace wins out nearly every time. Tallent invited us into Turtle’s interior world, but her deepest vulnerabilities and weaknesses have not been permitted to risk derailing this action story.
Turtle’s eventual revenge will please many — she doesn’t let a few close-range bullet wounds (I counted at least three) from an automatic rifle plus a permanently crushed trachea hinder her strategic campaign to put right the wrongs. But this felt like farce-fantasy, and it confirmed my earlier uneasiness about the characterisation of the very person we care about the most.
There is much to admire about this debut novel. Descriptions of the natural world are stunning, the plot gripping. Its literary referencing — Martin is a reader of philosophy — will delight readers in the know.
If Tallent can resist the lure of violence fantasy in favour of truth in his next work, it will be an absolute must-read.
REVIEW — SIMON CHIARONI City of Crows Chris Womersley (Picador, $30) “What foolish people call magic is nothing more than
a way of seeing the world; of being alive to its design, understanding it for what it really is. There is some power in that.”
So says the Forest Queen as she hands on her powers and book of spells to Charlotte Picot, a young widow desperate to recover her son from child slavers. And such is the world we come to see and experience in Chris Womersley’s wonderful new novel, set in France in 1673.
It’s a world carefully researched by Womersley in Paris, a bizarre but faithful reflection of 17th-century France. Its most celebrated episode is “l’affaire des poisons”, which shook the aristocracy of Paris to its core in 1677. Over five years, a Chambre Ardente (Burning Court) tortured and tried more than 200 people on charges of poisoning, witch-
craft and human sacrifice; 36 were executed and many others exiled.
One of the casualties was the midwife La Voisin.
Before being burnt at the stake, she implicated nobles and courtiers in the French court, including Louis XIV’s mistress. When the scandal was this close to the king, it was safer to hush it up. So others never made it to trial, but were quietly imprisoned for life via a “lettre de cachet” — such was the fate of Adam Lesage, a self-proclaimed magician who’d officiated at La Voisin’s black masses.
La Voisin and Lesage both feature in City of Crows. Charlotte Picot has already lost three children before her husband dies of the plague. To protect her only surviving child, Nicolas, she sets off from her tiny village for a safe haven in Lyon. But Nico- las is stolen from her and she is left for dead.
Rescued by the Forest Queen, Charlotte casts a spell to summon a demon to help her retrieve her son from whatever has befallen him in Paris. Meantime, Adam Lesage has been unexpectedly pardoned and freed from the galleys at Marseille. For five years, he has connived to conceal a map of a booty hidden in Paris. Now he needs a witch to help him access it.
So Lesage and Charlotte meet up in a strange, double case of mistaken identity.
Charlotte believes she has called forth a devil; Lesage, as worldly wise as Charlotte is naive, is nevertheless convinced of her powers when she proves capable of darkening the world and summoning a wolf to her side.
Chris Womersley’s first and second novels won a host of Australian literary awards. City of Crows, his fourth, is a step up, a major tour de force. Womersley has conjured up a dark, entirely credible world in which superstition, religion and witchcraft co-exist and where the boundaries between reality and the underworld are indistinct, as much for us as readers as for the novel’s inhabitants. He’s also delivered a delicious laugh-out-loud tale that picks you up by the scruff of the neck and never lets go.
REVIEW — SUE ORR Reservoir 13 JON McGREGOR (HarperCollins, $35)
The dramatic principle known as Chekhov’s Gun dictates that if a loaded gun is present in the first scene, it must be fired by the third. In other words, there is no room for unnecessary elements in fiction. Jon McGregor, in his latest novel, Reservoir 13, snubs the Russian playwright’s edict. The result is a disturbing yet compelling