Reviews of two new novels, a poetry collection and an account of life on an Irish farm.
Vincent O’Sullivan’s new novel declares a limit to the province of memory.
REVIEW — JOHN SINCLAIR All This by Chance Vincent O’Sullivan (Victoria University Press, $35)
In the opening scene of All This by Chance, Vincent O’Sullivan’s new novel, Stephen, a Westmere pharmacist, warns his son David not to expect the past to make sense. Rather, “you must imagine what it would be like if you took fragments chipped from a mosaic and handed them to someone, and expected him to know what it was, the picture it had been taken from”.
David is not convinced. He is angry at the fragments his parents have handed him, at their apparent lack of effort to uncover the facts of his own history, the Polish Jewish forebears who were transported to the death camps, save for one little girl smuggled to England before the borders were closed.
In 1947, Stephen, fleeing post-war Auckland and a hostile stepmother, travels to London and finds a job with a Jewish pharmacist (antipodean naïveté not admitting any anti-Semitic prejudice), through whom he meets and marries this Polish girl brought up in a middle-class English family. He and Eva enjoy a summer of love (the Edenic symbolism is nicely handled) and begin preparations to move back to Stephen’s South Sea paradise. But their bliss is shattered, not by anything sexual (indeed, they are having plenty of it, shamelessly al fresco), but by the arrival of Eva’s aunt Babcia. It turns out she has survived the camps and made her way to England, in search of her only surviving relative, her niece. Stephen and Eva feel they have no choice but to take her in, and arrange for her to move back to New Zealand to live with them, this despite the fact that they have no shared language and that Babcia’s presence puts an immediate damper on their sex life. “From then on… things were never quite as we had hoped,” Eva later confesses to her daughter.
Enter the next generation. There is David, born angry, and embracing his Jewishness as a challenge to his mother’s indifference to hers. He resents his parents for not making the effort to transcend the language barrier and Babcia’s (almost certainly trauma-induced) reticence, and to document the family story, the key — he believes — to his identity. And there is his younger sister, Lisa, who shows no such interest in the past, though the legacy of suffering drives her choices — career and relationships — towards the central tragedy of the novel.
The story is expertly told through slabs of narrative, which leap forward years or decades and switch between characters, yet always provide enough clues to maintain continuity. The style is at first challenging, with piles of incomplete sentences, predicates and adjectival phrases in search of a subject implied but never quite stated. The effect, however, starts to resemble that of flicking through old photo albums, each successive image conjuring up an emotion or a thought, something frozen in time, what, in other words, we hesitantly call the past.
This makes more sense as we realise that it is the third generation, in the form of David’s daughter, Esther, who is taking responsibility for the story, drawing together the strands, quizzing a sometimes reluctant Stephen, travelling to a mental hospital to interview a boyfriend of Lisa’s, to outback Australia in search of a friend of Babcia’s, and finally (something her father, for all his obsession to know, never did) to the Polish city of Wrocław. Here, in a lyrical travelogue reminiscent of WG Sebald’s, she wanders around the neighbourhood in which her lost ancestors lived and tries to imagine their last months of freedom. She fails in this endeavour, of course, as Sebald failed in his attempts to get the stones of Europe to speak out the horrors of the mid-20th century. One might quibble at O’Sullivan at this point for stepping in and, over Esther’s head, as it were, telling us the story that she never uncovers — the story of a family coming to realise they are trapped, and the story of how one of their children escaped the horror. But part of his point is to declare a limit to the province of memory and the cult of (re) claiming the past as a tool to merely explain the present. Some stories have their effect though they never be known; and some things must simply be taken on trust. REVIEW — FRANCES WALSH The Cow Book: A Story of Life on a Family Farm John Connell (Granta, $32.99) John Connell’s regard for the cow is highly developed. Unlike pigs, cows can amuse themselves: they chew their cud for hours to aid digestion but also apparently to stave off boredom. They are thought to enter an REM sleep state, and perchance dream. Further, cows can find their calves if separated from them; not so with sheep and their lambs. And they recognise human faces. “To speak of cattle is to speak of man, for cows have been our companions for nearly 10,500 years,” Connell writes.
In Toronto, living in a condo, he sorely missed the cows on his family home in County Longford in the Midlands region of Ireland: “It was a sort of uaigneas, or loneliness, that I could not fully articulate.”
In The Cow Book: A Story of Life on a Family Farm,
The effect resembles that of flicking through old photo albums, each image conjuring up an emotion or a thought.
Connell tells the affecting story of his return home. To an extent he is on the lam from a failed relationship and professional life, and recovering from a depression that had him sequestered in his bedroom for months. He is also trying to write a novel. He brokers a deal with his parents to help on their farm in exchange for a roof over his head. He becomes “a servant to the cows” and sets to wrestling calves out of their mothers; dosing for the bacterial disease of blackleg; and burning off cows’ horns in a manly world. “I do not wear gloves, for we farmers do not wear gloves — I think it might be seen as weakness.”
The novel is swiftly sidelined; when after a while his current, possibly-in-possession-of-Job-like-patience girlfriend asks him on Facebook from Australia how the writing is coming, he tells her: “I do not know. A cow does not calve in five minutes and a book is not born overnight. For now, the animals need me and I need them.”
While Connell’s detailing of livestock manoeuvres as well as his frequent riffs on the history of the cow are interesting (his story of Hitler’s breeding of an Aryan auroch terrifying) and serve to remind us of the origins of our food, it is his writing about home that is most elegiac. The Cow Book is, in essence, a finely tuned meditation on place and identity. Connell commemorates people he grew up with; a bachelor neighbour called Mickey Doherty, who became senile, or more kindly, Connell notes, duine le Dia— a Gaelic phrase which translates as “a person of God”, for only God can understand them. In February, on the feast day of St Brigid, Connell goes to the fields to cut rush to weave a cross to hang over the fireplace: “I do this because we have always done this. I do this in a way beyond religion. I do this in a way of culture.” For the colonialised, who have lost much, it is important to cleave to rituals, Connell writes. And land. “We have an attachment to this land that goes beyond money; it is a connection of a spiritual quality. It is our baile agus beatha, the place where we come home, that sustains us.” The fields on his farm hold memories, in much the same way as streets in cities, he notes. He keeps a self-written note in the George Orwell essay on his bedroom bookshelf: “The day she told you it was over. Bought on Macleay Street, Potts Point, Sydney. Tough day.”
Connell writes frankly, too, about his relationship with his father. In a tender chapter called Westerns, he writes of his father’s — and his father’s generation’s — love of westerns. “That Charles Bronson is some man,” Connell comments over chores to his father, whom he remembers once playing the harmonica, evoking “the great plains, the bars, the brawls, the buffalo and the blood”. The depths don’t often surface, however, and Connell’s father is mostly taciturn, apart from occasional tongue lashings directed his son’s way: “You’ve wrote four books and none of them have succeeded. You’ve no job, no money, your life is a mess and you’re a failure. You’re thirty and you’ve nothing to show for it.” Unsurprisingly, Connell fears his father dying: “What of all the said and unsaid things?” he wonders. Ultimately, he reframes his father’s brutal outbursts with the assistance of filial love and bovine analogies: “I know that this struggle between father and son is playing out an age-old rural drama — these rows have been had by men like us for generations; we are the two bulls in the field sizing each other up.” REVIEW — CLAIRE MABEY Broken Play Nicholas Sheppard (RSVP Publishers, $34.95) When I finished Broken Play, by Nicholas Sheppard, I googled “gay All Black”. I was so sure I’d come across the name/s that I knew I knew but, due to an unabashed lack of engagement with professional sport, had forgotten. The first articles to appear were all, in various ways, about the need to combat homophobia in sport in Aotearoa. I was surprised and had to climb out of my bubble and admit that we really are still negotiating what it is to be a male and a male who is also good at sport in Aotearoa.
Sheppard’s hero is Alec Haudepin, a young rugby star on the cusp of All Black potential. The novel immediately illuminates an identity struggle as Alec grapples with the logistics and etiquette required for an interaction with a female prostitute. Quickly following this scene is one of several flashbacks: Alec comes across his elder brother Mark’s body after an accident involving a bicycle and a bridge. The emotional and psychological load on the young man’s mind is played out over the course of the story, as his private life and budding rugby career make for hellishly awkward companions.
This first novel is a smooth read: dialogue is finely crafted from start to finish, while Sheppard’s narrative style is fluid and fulsome, with vivid scenes of domestic and rural New Zealand contrasting with urban Auckland. At times, the key relationships seem to move a little fast for the sake of plot development. But this doesn’t detract much as Alec meets a boy-nextdoor with troubles of his own, Maxim, their relationship becoming the essential development in the book — alongside career-jeopardising
To speak of cattle is to speak of man, for cows have been our companions for nearly 10,500 years.
incidents with alcohol and drunks in bars, which threaten Alec’s credibility with the top men in the professional-rugby universe.
Some of the most insightful moments are the scenes from Alec’s secondary school days where he had to contain his true self as it emerged. His enthusiasm and talent for English, encouraged by a teacher, had to be concealed from teammates.
Alec’s fear of being called out for his talent manifested in brute physical intimidation of a classmate suspicious of his interest in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Broken Play opens up questions we all still have to ask and discuss. Young men should read it, and older men, too. Rugby players, coaches, management and sports media personalities all need to get a copy and share it. What if an All Black was openly gay and everyone was fine with it? Are we there yet? You’d like to think so, but the reality appears to suggest otherwise. REVIEW — TOYAH WEBB The Facts Therese Lloyd (Victoria University Press, $25) The Facts is a searing meditation on loss and art, lodged in the mid-point between beginning and end. Time is stretched, distorted and folded: what was there, and then what was not. It is a marriage, an affair, a hesitation, pōhutukawa flowers, and a surface “eclipsed by shadow days of nosleep”. It leaves a burn mark.
The collection is a result of Therese Lloyd’s PhD, which focuses on ekphrasis (the detailed description of visual art as a literary device) in Anne Carson’s poetry. Carson’s writing about art and absence provides a surface for Lloyd to paint on, and paint over, until the original hue is barely visible but still exists underneath.
Lloyd’s poems are composed of foreground, background and empty space, each word interacting with the next as “daubs of meaning”. Carson’s geometrical obsession, explored in Eros the Bittersweet (1986), also lends structure to the collection; the triangle of desire, absence, and the “thing in between”. Time, it seems, is the “in between” for Lloyd.
The Facts pays homage to Carson’s suite of poems inspired by the American realist painter Edward Hopper (1882-1967). His paintings depict scenes of absence, set in silent and airy rooms. In her suite “Hopper: Confessions”, Carson describes the movement of light in a series of the paintings: the way it moves, tracks the hours and reaches into the corners. Lloyd writes her own poems with the same intensity as late-afternoon sun.
The Facts is a raw and
“fierce interrogation of living” that explores the intersection between art and life. Lloyd states that “to write a poem is to complete a thought”, and if this is the case, her collection is articulated with “exploded doneness”. It is beautiful, diaphanous and startling.