Book Review: The Absolute Book, by Elizabeth Knox

Available in bookshops nationwide from 12 September 2019
The Launch is at Unity Books on Thursday, 12 September

cv_the_absolute_bookElizabeth Knox’s thirteenth novel promises fantasy on a grand scale from the outset, with its brave title, heft, and illustrative cover; yet turn the pages and the reader is transported into the opening of a juicy crime thriller. Thus begins an unpredictable and intelligent work of imagination that plunges the reader ever deeper into a modern world interwoven within a realm of fantasy and folklore.

The story follows Taryn Cornick, a successful writer from England, whose recent literary acclaim and marriage to a wealthy and thoughtful husband should be enviable, yet are overshadowed by the loss of her older sister in a hit-and-run incident. Unable to reconcile herself with the punishment meted out by the justice system, she sets the wheels in motion for her own revenge – and unwittingly, her damnation. What ensues is a kaleidoscopic tale of her salvation by Shift, a misfit from a seemingly utopian parallel world, and a band of characters encountered along the way. Could Taryn’s latest book, inspired by the library of her late grandfather provide the key to what everyone – and everything is so desperately seeking?

This book was unexpectedly fast-paced: I could almost feel the author grabbing me by the shirtfront and ripping me through the portals of this labyrinthine fantasy. The relaxed writing style and sensory descriptions give the story as much ease and addictiveness as a holiday paperback, but without compromising on intellect. Knox aligns her story and characters in our current social, cultural and environmental state, and uses the fantasy realms to question and highlight, horrify and add humour to the ultimate questions, and challenges we face. Taryn’s reality, past and present, unravels to the reader in patterns that begin with something seemingly idyllic which is inevitably corrupt or corrupted. The same goes for the fantasy realm of Knox’s story – the utopian society is riddled with flaws, the demons are more sinned against than sinning, and Purgatory shares our frustrations with public transport and healthcare.

This is the kind of book you keep on your shelf for years to come, and discover new depths each time you re-read it. Anyone who enjoys the bounty and beauty of J.R.R.Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, and the far-from-perfect characters of Neil Gaiman will appreciate the depth of imagination, and level of critical thinking that has been poured into this book. Even Taryn’s rare slip in word use, which momentarily unveils her New Zealand creator, can be forgiven. It reminds the reader this is not an English import, it is a New Zealand writer at the top of their game.

Reviewed by Lynette Hartgill

The Absolute Book
by Elizabeth Knox
Victoria University Press
ISBN 9781776562305

Book Review: Loving Sylvie, by Elizabeth Smither

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_loving_sylvieElizabeth Smither’s latest novel, Loving Sylvie, interweaves the stories of three generations of women: Isobel Lehmann, her daughter Madeleine, and her granddaughter Sylvie. Narrated in third person omniscient, the story fluctuates between past and present, thereby portraying the continuous vulnerability of each character. The women’s stories not only take place in different periods in time, but also in three prominent cities: Paris, Melbourne, and Auckland.

Loving Sylvie centres on the intricate joys and challenges of parental, filial, and marital relations, as well as its accompanying aspirations, regrets, and secrets. The story opens with the wedding of Sylvie Lehmann to Ben Taverner. Although the fancy ceremony is over, the bittersweet journey of marriage has only begun.

The novel delves into the lives and marriages of each woman. Isobel still regrets a decision she made during her marriage to her husband Kit. Madeline works for Madame Récamier in a Parisian bookshop, Le Livre Bleu. She leaves a young Sylvie in Isobel’s hands. Believing that “settling down” might remedy the wounds of several failed relationships in the past, Madeleine marries Freddie Rice, a man twenty years her senior. Not having her own mother to talk to, the newlywed Sylvie struggles with academic work and part-time jobs. Most significantly, she struggles to connect with her antagonistic mother-in-law, Cora. Having lost her own husband when Ben was just a toddler, Cora too has had her own hardships and bouts of loneliness.

This novel is yet another stellar work from a former New Zealand Poet Laureate. I highly commend Smither’s use of intertextual allusions. She colours each character’s psyche with a wide array of literary references, from Classical to Shakespearean and contemporary fiction. Her attention to detail is evident in her fond descriptions of the simple, yet often overlooked, delights in life: coffee, fruit, kind neighbours, lovable pets, and books. Moreover, the story elucidates the often quiet aspects of the human condition, whatever is mostly unsaid yet forms a tempest in the interior: hopelessness, frustration, and deep yearning.

Loving Sylvie is a truly heart-warming story that would be perfect for any reader this winter.

Reviewed by Azariah Alfante

Loving Sylvie
by Elizabeth Smither
Allen & Unwin NZ
ISBN 9781988547114

 

Book Review: Rufus Marigold, by Ross Murray

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_rufus_marigoldThe landline telephone rings at home, harshly jarring your cocoon. You immediately panic. What terrible tragedy may have befallen a family member? Or, much worse:  who is trying to make you talk to them?

The graphic novel Rufus Marigold is a print compilation of a multi-part online series by Tauranga artist Ross Murray. Rufus is a man-monkey living alone in a contemporary New Zealand city and struggling with debilitating social anxiety. He works in a faceless office as a Logical Data Analyst – a role that even sex workers find depressing – but quietly dreams of becoming an artist, despite its inherent imbalance between talent and income.

Rufus is overly concerned with how others see him, and always assumes the worst, erroneously. Caught up in self-loathing, Rufus’ anxiety consumes his life and overflows to impact others. Although Rufus fears being ‘alarmingly conspicuous’ in public, he is also dismayed when people don’t acknowledge him or his efforts.

In exploring self-help books, Rufus discovers Kierkegaard’s The Concept of Anxiety. It resonates. ‘I’ve finally found someone who completely and utterly understands me. It just so happens he’s been dead for over 150 years’. Eventually, Rufus’s tentative online posting of his artistic work receives some of the validation he’s been craving. But even this objective assessment of value still feeds into the cycle of anxiety, as he feels pressured to appease his fans with new and better material.

When he is offered a book deal for his work, Rufus cannot cope with the possibilities it offers. He is cajoled into agreeing for one Ross Murray, an ‘overwhelmingly mediocre’ local artist, to act as the public face of the role. Finally, Rufus is forced to confront his intrinsic needs. ‘Why don’t I feel happy?  Is acknowledgement what I really want? Does success require recognition?’

Murray has channelled personal experiences in the vignettes about the man-monkey who shares his initials. He deftly captures the ratcheting anxiety and exhaustion caused by over-thinking in social situations. Murray has been mentored by New Zealand comic artist alumni, such as Dylan Horrocks and Sarah Laing, resulting in images that are neatly framed to put the reader in the role of sympathetic (albeit occasionally irritated or nauseated) observer. The muted colour palette, with occasional floral bursts, reflects Rufus’ deliberately bland, careful life.

In this well-packaged graphic novel, Murray and Earth’s End Publishing show that deeply individual stories of anxiety can have wide resonance with many readers.

Reviewed by Jane Turner

Rufus Marigold
by Ross Murray
Published by Earth’s End Publishing
ISBN 9780473448035

Book Reviews: A book about, and a collection by Greville Texidor

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_all_the_juicy_pasturesI read the biography of and collection by Greville Texidor together, which turned out to be very good idea.

Margot Schwass has written a comprehensive, intelligent, and fascinating biography of Greville Texidor. Some of you might say, “Who?”. It’s a fair question.  Greville Texidor arrived in New Zealand as a refugee, in 1940. Others who fit this description include Lili Krauss, and Theo Schoon.

Greville, a Spanish Civil War veteran who had been interned in Holloway  after returning to England was now married to a German national, Werner Droescher. She came to New Zealand with Werner, and her mother and sister. They were sent to Kaipara, quite another country compared to Spain and England. That was an enormous culture shock.

Very early on, Frank Sargeson met them, and quickly became a mentor to Texidor. They began an intense correspondence, and when she began writing seriously, he read and commented on all her work. She became part of that group of writers who were enormously influenced and supported in their writing careers by Sargeson.

So, who exactly was Greville Texidor, and how does she come to be regarded as a New Zealand writer? I asked around a selection of friends for their opinions on just what are the criteria: variable, it transpires. However a strong opinion was that the writer should produce their work while living in New Zealand, regardless of the subject matter.  That seems good enough!

And certainly this qualifies Greville Texidor. Almost the entirety of her published work was written in New Zealand; she continued to write after leaving NZ, but none of it was completed, and much of it destroyed by her. Some of it appears in the collected stories, which was edited by Kendrick Smithyman more than 20 years after her death.

She was a deeply unhappy woman for the latter part of her life, despite her success as a writer. She never really came to terms with living in New Zealand, and certainly never regarded herself as a Kiwi. For a woman of her background and experiences, NZ in the late 40s and early 50s must have been a dire backwater, saved only by her connections with Sargeson and others.

Margot Schwass has brought this almost-unknown figure of NZ literature to life in her biography. It must have taken her a prodigious amount of time and effort to find more about Texidor, but she has created a fascinating work which keeps sending you to the stories.

So now, to the stories.

cv_in_fifteen_minutes_you_can_say_a_lot.jpgThe collection includes what many have described as her best work, the novella These Dark Glasses. Janet Frame said of this work that she was “impressed and quietly depressed by their assurance and sophistication”.

Texidor wrote really well. These Dark Glasses is set somewhere in the south of France, quite possibly in a small town we know as Cassis. It’s fascinating – this is how it begins:

‘SUNDAY – Calanques: I am used to not being met. Comrade Ruth Brown is not the clinging type……..And Jane never did meet anyone at the station. We always considered it bourgeois…..’

That either repels or draws you in, I think. I decided to be drawn in and see what this writer was about. I think that her stories – and I won’t mention them all – are cleverly drawn from her own experiences, and obviously not entirely works of fiction. But then what is? She writes well about relationships, and catches personalities and attitudes in small exchanges of conversation.

The stories are variously set in New Zealand, France, Spain . One which stood out for me is the story An annual affair.

This is at once familiar, sad, provides some  moments of recognition and many others where you think ‘“thank goodness my father/family/etc were not like that.’ It’s a Boxing Day picnic in a small town somewhere in NZ. Early in the day dad ‘has to meet a chap’ and heads to the pub. The kids in their good clothes end up covered in mud and have to change into the spares their thoughtful, long-suffering mother has brought along. It sounds like any dire picnic in the 50s, on a fairly miserable summerish day. Windy, not warm enough to swim, pub too close and food predictable. But the observations of the narrator turn it into a remarkable story.

And I think that’s the key to Greville Texidor – she observes so clearly what is going on beneath the surface, behind the comments and in the looks! She’s well worth discovering, if you have not found her already. And when you do read her stories, read Margot Schwass’ excellent biography alongside. You won’t be disappointed.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

All the juicy pastures: Greville Texidor and New Zealand
by Margot Schwass
VUP
ISBN 9781776562251

In fifteen minutes you can say a lot: selected fiction   
by Greville Texidor
VUP
ISBN 9780864730466

Book Review: Landfall 237, edited by Emma Neale

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_landfall_237.jpgEstablished in 1947, Landfall continues to play an important role in supporting and showcasing writing and art within New Zealand. This autumn edition is no exception. Like unwrapping presents on Christmas Day, opening Landfall 237 reveals a wealth of artistic delight. The announcement of the winners of the 2019 Charles Brasch Young Essay Writing Competition gives this edition extra joy. The Judges’ remarks on the overall standards and in particular about the three winners, give insight into the future of writing through our talented youth. Jack McConnell’s The Taniwha, Moderation of Our Human Pursuits is included.

While I enjoyed new works from some of my favourite, established writers like Cilla McQueen’s Poem for My Tokotoko, and Peter Bland’s America, I enjoyed new ideas, rhythms and clever language constructions from some new writers.

This edition celebrates the centennial of Ruth Dallas, one of the poets most published in Landfall from 1947-66. John Geraets in Ruth Dallas’ poem Turning cleverly combines her writing with an historical and literary timeline. I liked the way this opened up her work afresh. Her poetry is all but neglected these days so it was a pleasure to see such a beautiful tribute.

The featured artists in Landfall 237 are Sharon Singer, Ngahuia Harrison and Peter Trevelyan. Again, their portfolios show a fresh approach in painting and photography.

orthodoxy
Peter Trevelyan’s work orthodoxy (as above) featured on the last page. To me it summed up the precision and beauty of the printed word. Therefore, from the first page with promising new writers, to the final visual statement of orthodoxy this Landfall is a present worth unwrapping.

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

Landfall 237: Autumn 2019
Edited by Emma Neale
Published by Otago University Press
ISBN 9781988531731

 

Book Review: The Unreliable People, by Rosetta Allan

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_unreliable_peopleIn 1974 in Kazakhstan, then part of the USSR, a little girl is abducted from her bed. Several days later, the girl arrives back, the abductor having suddenly changed her mind. In 1994, in St Petersburg, Antonina navigates her art studies, a new city in newly broken-up Russia, and a search for her identity.

Antonina was the girl who was abducted by the mysterious Katerina. She is of the Koryo-saram people; a group of Koreans who had immigrated to Russia in the 19th century, settling in the far east of Siberia. They have a long and complicated history that can’t be done justice in a book review; The Unreliable People does deal in some depth with the forced deportation of the entire Koryo-saram population from Siberia to Central Asia in the 1930s. Antonina knows a little about her past and the history of her people, and much of the narrative of the story is her slow uncovering of her own stories. Antonina’s character is the most developed in the story; her mother, two best friends and Katerina are all more sketch-like.

Allan’s descriptions of scenes and landscapes are evocative, and you can see the shabby streets of St Petersburg and the windswept Kazakh steppes easily in your mind’s eye. The narrative moves between time periods and locations, and towards the end also shifts in focus between main characters, which was a little jarring.  The most compelling part of the story for me was Katerina’s experiences during the deportation from Siberia to Kazakhstan, which were horrific and tragic in equal measure – a piece of history I hadn’t been aware of, and certainly nothing that enhances Stalin’s reputation. Other aspects of recent history are touched on such as the breakup of the USSR and nuclear testing.

I enjoyed The Unreliable People, although it took me a while to get the hang of 1994 St Petersburg and its art world. With themes of love, loss, identity and redemption, it has a lot going on, and will appeal to readers who like their books to have a bit of depth.

by Rachel Moore

The Unreliable People
by Rosetta Allan
Published by Penguin Books NZ
ISBN 9780143773566

Book Review: The Doll Factory, by Elizabeth Macneal

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_doll_factoryIris and her twin sister Rose Whittle work for Mrs Salter’s Dolls Emporium. They make the costumes for china dolls. Often the dolls are ordered by clients to celebrate the death of an infant or some significant event in their lives. Iris was born with a twisted shoulder as a result of her shoulder being stuck in the birth canal when she was born and her sister Rose was disfigured as a result of  smallpox. The girls paint the features on the dolls, but Iris dreams of becoming a painter. A fantasy that can never be achieved through lack of money for lessons, paints and canvases.

Iris catches the eye of a pre-Raphaelite artist Louis Frost who wants her to be his full-time model. Iris, after some persuasion, agrees, but only on the condition Louis gives her art lessons. Rose and their parents think she is nothing more than a whore and they cut off any further contact. Louis also finds accommodation for Iris which also is a matter of contention with her family, further fuelling the fire of her being a “kept woman”.

Iris also has another admirer, the rather odd and creepy character Silas Reed. Silas catches vermin then with the art of taxidermy presents them on stands, dressing them in clothes. People have a morbid fascination with them, with many displayed in drawing rooms. Silas is also a butt of jokes as he is an odd- looking character often found in public houses muttering into his tankard. Silas, over time, becomes more and more obsessed with Iris, imagining her returning his infatuation.

The author has put together some fascinating characters together in this engrossing book, and it is a rather intriguing and at times spin- chilling read. I had to put it down at times and catch my breath before continuing. A great novel.

Reviewed by Christine Frayling

The Doll Factory
by Elizabeth Macneal
Published by Picador
9781529002416