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.

Metro Magazine NZ - - Contents -

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.

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