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.

Metro Magazine NZ - - Contents -

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

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