Sometimes, not only does life pull the rug out from under you, but it kicks you round the ribs while you’re down. In Damien Wilkins’ new novel, Dad Art, we meet Michael as he picks himself up, and starts to dust himself off. His wife has left, his beloved daughter has flown the nest and the city, the family house has been sold. One parent has passed away recently, the other is sinking into the fog of dementia. What’s he got left to hang on to?
Michael gets on with getting on. He immerses himself in his work, takes Te Reo Māori lessons and has a paddle in the murky waters of internet dating. An encounter with an intriguing woman he met online leads him down a path he hadn’t considered; the return of his daughter with an artist in tow forces him to confront his attitudes to her, to art, and eventually, his world view.
Michael’s story felt familiar to me in lots of ways; my own daughter has headed off to Flattingville, and is at university doing things I only sort-of understand, and, like Michael, I’m a Wellingtonian. Anyone who has ever tried internet dating will recognise the awkward first meeting and the mutual scratchiness of getting to know a new person and trying to work out if they might be a good match.
Wellington is very much a character in the novel, as is the time, 2015 or thereabouts. The flag referendum looms, the demise of Campbell Live is imminent, Treaty issues come up in conversation, his phone gives him Te Kupu o te Rā; and Wellington institutions, be they restaurants, theatres, playgrounds, Courtenay Place or the local waterways, all make their presence felt.
Dad Art snuck up on me. For a while it was just a book that I was reading, but I realised about two-thirds of the way through I was thinking about it when I was doing other things. Parts of the story are very affecting; scenes with Michael’s dad made me long for my grandmother, who had dementia before she died; the high school maths club outing to the river was awful in the inevitability of the outcome.
This is a story about regeneration, love, and ultimately, hope and acceptance. There’s much more to recognise than Wellington landmarks and recent news stories; the themes are universal, even if the situations aren’t.
Reviewed by Rachel Moore
by Damien Wilkins
Published by VUP