Derek Grzelewski came to New Zealand in his twenties, drawn to the mountains and then to all the extreme landscapes and peak experiences available. He has written of and photographed many of his climbing, abseiling and spelunking adventures. His descriptions and images have appeared in many top end geographical magazines. More recently, Grzelewski has written several books, fuelled by his passion for fly fishing and extreme journeys.
His latest book, The Smallest Continent, is a second collection of his best published stories. As he explains in his foreword, or invocation, this collection focuses on the people – the characters – at the heart of each story, “the motor and fuel of the narrative,” inseparable from the landscapes they inhabit.
Grzelewski’s writing has been described as ‘very evocative’ by past reviewers, and this is true of each of the stories included here. Grzelewski approaches his subjects – animal, plant and mineral – with generosity and an open mind/heart. He uses a variety of stylistic choices, deliberate or inherent, to express his enthusiasm. His imagery, narration and dialogue vibrate with tone and hue; similes and embellishments bounce from sentence to sentence like multi-coloured tennis balls.
For example, describing a family of musicians in the Subantarctic Catlins: “They played a couple of fast and furious Irish reels, a warm-up by sprint, and I couldn’t take my eyes off their hands: the fingernails serrated like the skyline of the Southern Alps, the hands of people from the land, toughened by mud and hail and barbed wire.”
The marvellous places and people being described are worthy of explicit praise, but this use of hyperbole carries risk. The reader can be buried beneath the weight of words; the colour and tone can blend into uniformity, which is not the intended effect. The writing may lose definition without the space and contrast that allow a reader to refocus.
This space is critical. Interestingly, it is alluded to by Grzelewski, though in reference to landscape rather than literature, when he writes of Oteaki Conservation Park in Otago: “There is nothing really here… A silence of almost symphonic quality… Layered with rich undertones like a multi-track recording… inexplicably, both space and silence are comforting, an infinite elbow-room to think and to be.” This can also be applied to creative non-fiction writing, perhaps via a gentle culling of adjectives and adverbs.
However, there is a lack of detachment, irony and cynicism in Grzelewski’s approach to his life, journeys and writing that is uplifting and galvanising. The reader may sit on the couch and critique at leisure, but Grzelewski has done it, is doing it, is recounting it in pictures and words, and is living according to his lights. This is quite inspirational. He is drawn to people (and they to him) who are similarly committed and resourceful in their fields. Grzelewski’s writing is at its strongest when he is recounting his encounters with the potters, mountain bikers, fiddle playing musicians, gold diggers and stargazers who populate this small continent.
The stories in the collection are also extremely well researched, with a comprehensive reading list included. The reader can learn a lot. The strength of the book lies in its merging of genres. These are variously, and sometimes all at once, adventure yarns, social and cultural histories, scientific expositions and from time to time psychological analyses.
Ripe like a farmhouse cheese, vivid like a Dickens novel, in its best stories and moments The Smallest Continent offers and heeds some good advice: Let the land and its people speak.
Reviewed by Aaron Blaker
The Smallest Continent:Journeys Through New Zealand Landscapes
by Derek Grzelewski
Published by Bateman