This is a story about death. Or rather, a story about the spaces left behind after death. Djuna has lost her partner, Harvey, to suicide. But more, she has lost her direction, her purpose and all the solid ground beneath, which holds us in times of grief.
The story is told through short, prosaic chapters. It is like visiting an art gallery with each chapter a painting of something from before, or from after. Each chapter could stand alone as an example of beautiful writing. At times, I struggled with this format as it seemed almost self-indulgent. Yet it matches the disjointed character of Djuna who is set adrift in this gallery, looking for the exit. Her own parents are separated, both legally and physically. Her mother in America, her father in the far north, seeking for his own purpose in life.
Djuna has to cope with her own grief and sense of guilt which is so much the story after a suicide. However, Conroy also shows the responsibility she has to Harvey’s parents, and to his brother, Bruce. While she is drawn to Bruce through mutual grief, she also has to question the morality of their affair. His wife and daughter are part of this complex tale of relationships and resolution.
Thom Conroy last year published The Naturalist, a novel based on the life of German naturalist, Dr Ernst Dieffenbach who travelled to New Zealand in 1839. Some of the issues involving Maori land ownership and European values are touched on again in this more contemporary novel. Here we see the effect of colonisation 150 years down the track. By using the snapshot narrative structure to tell this tale, Conroy has produced a superb series of sketches through which we weave with Djuna.
As a teacher, I could easily use each of the smaller chapters as an example of writing as craft. The language, the structure, the metaphor all come together to produce a true reading experience. The format matches the turbulent movement within as the black and white sea images front and back cover, hold a surging tide-of-a-tale.
Reviewed by Kathy Watson
The Salted Air
By Thom Conroy
Published by Vintage New Zealand