Book Review: The Families, by Vincent O’Sullivan

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Available now in bookstores nationwide. 

Vincent O’Sullivan is the current New Zealand poet laureate. He is a Distinguished Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit, a recipient of the Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement, and has twice won the Montana New Zealand Book Award for Poetry. It is impossible, therefore, to come to his latest collection of short stories, The Families, without expectations.

There are fourteen stories in The Families, and the title story is ninth. By the time I reached it I found myself skipping sentences and paragraphs, trying not to feel weighed down by the density of the prose. Perhaps I didn’t give myself enough time? But I’d just come from reading Gemma Bowker-Wright’s collection The Red Queen where it sometimes feels like an entire life can be captured in a few well-chosen words.

O’Sullivan’s stories have depth, there’s no doubt about that, but the writing is not as I’d expected. Take this, from ‘Mrs Bennett and the Bears’, “She raised her hand to hush the women at the table behind her, on the other side of the two bottles and the plates with their scattered shells.” Or this, from ‘Keeping an Eye’, “Lexy caught her brother’s eye and puckered her forehead, her signalling to watch it, bro, as she had begun saying recently, an expression that irritated her mother. Mum, as the twins well knew, had a shorter fuse than Dad.”

O’Sullivan draws the reader in but too often I found myself impatiently hurrying through long sentences and paragraphs, trying to get to the substance of each story. They traverse the full range of themes confronting families – an elderly parent in a nursing home, troubled children returning home as troubled adults, the revelation of a past affair, a family coming together after the death of a parent. Perhaps the strongest, for me, were those that did not dwell on old age, like ‘Luce’, the simply told account of a young boy sent away to relatives in the South Island after his father commits a crime, and ‘On Another Note’, previously published in Second Violins, a collection based on and inspired by Katherine Mansfield’s stories.

I asked my friends what they thought of the book. They looked at each other first before offering comments like ‘thoughtful,’ and ‘gentle,’ then quickly moving on to agree the cover design was ‘awful.’ The cover shows a slightly coarse line drawing of a stork’s nest, the out-of-sight adult’s long bill reaching down to feed three hungry chicks.

I wanted to like The Families more than I did. I knew these were important, relevant, meaningful stories by one of our most accomplished writers. But as I ploughed through sentences and paragraphs full of details, sometimes struggling to work out whose point of view the story had shifted to, I tired of them quickly.

Perhaps I will come back to this collection, spend more time with it, make more of an effort to get to know the characters, dwell on the details. Perhaps as I age I will see more of the truths that O’Sullivan has undoubtedly set out, and perhaps I will care more about the people he writes about. But, for now, I’d rather read Alice Munro’s ‘Runaway’ or Gemma Bowker-Wright’s ‘Katherine’, where a single sentence can hit you so hard you have to put the book down, unable to breathe.

Reviewed by C P Howe

The Families
by Vincent O’Sullivan
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN 9780864739193

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