Book Review: Attraction, by Ruby Porter

Available at bookshops nationwide.

cv_attractionThe winner of the inaugural Michael Gifkins Prize, Attraction is the debut novel of New Zealand prose writer, poet and artist Ruby Porter. Written as part of her Master of Creative Writing thesis at Auckland University, Attraction was published by Text Publishing in May 2019.

Attraction follows three young women: Ilana, Ashi, and an unnamed narrator. On a road trip between Auckland, Whāngārā and Levin with her almost-girlfriend and her best friend, the narrator is haunted by the memory of her emotionally abusive ex-boyfriend, New Zealand’s troubled history of colonisation, and the pressure she feels to make art in order to call herself an artist.

Attraction is an exquisite story. Told in flickering images where the past is interspersed with the present, the North Island’s various landscapes unfold in tandem with the unravelling of the narrator’s personal family history. The landscapes are sketched in meticulous detail, such as this description of distant hills: ‘… get close enough and they reveal their lines to you: wrinkles, creases, the staves of music. Cows dot the ridges like a child’s attempt at drawing crotchets, black and squat.’

While the plot itself is relatively straight-forward – three friends on a road-trip around the North Island where jealousies swirl and personal histories untangle – there is a constant intensity that pulsates beneath. This intensity is driven by the many mysteries of the novel, the largest of which is the first-person narrator herself. Her life feels so real, so distinct, that the novel almost reads like an autobiography. Yet the reader is never fully allowed to know her, nor to trust her. Her emotions and responses are always held at a distance. The narrator finds it difficult to connect with and share her own feelings, so the reader is made to feel this same disconnect – she remains stranded in the abstract, with even her name withheld.

The novel begins with an order: ‘Don’t write this down.’ In a te reo class with her tutor and friend Pita, the narrator is reminded that learning is about the kōrero. Despite ‘learning to speak,’ the narrator withholds the truth about her relationships, her family history and even present events. While Attraction is largely about the stories we tell about ourselves, about our family histories and about our nation, it is also about what we choose not to share. The reader is reminded about the infallibility of memories, and about the danger of trusting the person telling the story. ‘Every time you remember something,’ the narrator repeatedly warns, ‘you’re only remembering the last time you thought of it.’

The prose is emotive and artistic. At Whāngārā, the night ‘seems to bend over and the stars just fall. I walk along the beach, cracking sand like a crème brûlée.’ Yet it is raw and honest – sometimes blatantly so. Clutching at a small motel soap feels like ‘clutching at the foetus of a mouse, small and slippery.’ Each line comes as a shock, to either startle or impress.

Attraction highlights how New Zealand’s ‘clean and green’ landscapes are not what they are marketed to be. Auckland ‘hides behind its concrete shapewear,’ the countryside has a ‘real ugliness’ to it, Lake Horowhenua is contaminated by run-off and fertiliser, Foxton has ‘dead expanses of driveways,’ and every town they pass looks ‘worn out, or half finished, expired.’

The novel captures the truth about small New Zealand towns within small interactions between onlookers, family friends and the three main characters. While Ilana and the narrator are assisted in a moment of kiwi kindness when their car breaks down, this kindness is intermingled with terse moments of homophobia and racism. The ugly underbelly of New Zealand society is often exposed.

Attraction is about belonging and not belonging. As a Pākehā with conflicted emotions about living on Aotearoa land amidst a troubled colonial history, the narrator feels significant ‘white guilt.’ As a Pākehā, she feels like ‘someone imaginary, someone who only resembles a person.’ In Whāngārā, her whiteness is no longer invisible, its like ‘wearing another skin, one that isn’t stuck on right. Or it’s wearing nothing at all.’ The narrator is consistently challenged in how she sees herself and how she relates to the land. Alongside revelations about the New Zealand Wars, the narrator begins to feel overwhelmed by the landscape around her, feeling ‘something stronger than memory, something bone-deep. It warms me and pains me.’ Her tenuous connection to the land is often connected to her inability to speak.

Told in short lyrical snapshots, Attraction is impossible to put down. There are so many quotes to savour, it is impossible to choose just a few. In what is a distinctly New Zealand novel of road-trips, a family bach getaway, hidden histories, small towns and kiwi kindness, Attraction is also queer, feminist, and a blatant examination of what it means to be Pākehā. It is a brilliant, beautiful novel.

Review by Rosalie Elliffe

Attraction
by Ruby Porter
Published by Text Publishing
ISBN 9781925773552

Book Review: The Julian Calendar, by William Henry

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_julian_calendarI must confess – when I picked up this book I did something I don’t normally do – I read the author’s note in the back first and I’m so glad that I did. The postscript written in September 2018 particularly struck me: ‘On Saturday 12 May, I placed in John’s unsteady 89-year-old hands an advance review copy of The Julian Calendar. I was overcome with immeasurable relief; John just beamed. He was content. He knew this book would again change my life. He knew it had already changed his. Eleven days later, on a chilly Wellington evening, and only minutes after I had kissed his forehead and whispered suggestions for the sweetest of dreams, John died. An angel heading home…’ It made me cry then in anticipation of a novel that might change my life, and makes me tearful now, knowing that it has.

‘To own a beautiful new book is a tactile treat. The smooth feel of the jacket, the firmness of the hard cover, the quality of the paper, all make the fingers move over the book and seek out more messages than the words themselves can provide. The next best thing is to give such a book to someone who you know will appreciate it in just these ways.’ (page 173). This certainly is one such book, one such reading experience that I am grateful to have received to review, and I cannot easily compare it with any other.

Set in a period of history before mobile phones were everywhere, and before social media sites came to both join us and also disconnect us from real life, The Julian Calendar commences at the official start of the English Summer, June 1992. Daniel Jamieson is a heart-broken kiwi twenty-something looking for distraction in London, while Julian Marriot is a sixty-something classical music loving ex-patriot looking for companionship (whether he’d admit to that or not). The world is a place still reeling from the discovery and deaths of the horrific AIDS epidemic that began to sweep the world in the 1980s. Julian has watched friends wither and disappear from his life. When Daniel turns up at his door, an old university friend of his nephew’s, he is both nervous and attracted by the young man. What ensues over the length of the book is the blossoming of a friendship that despite sexual persuasion and forty-year age gaps, ever deepens, aided by the sharing of books and music between them.

This work is beautiful, the journey of two men (Simon Hertnon and John Henry Garmonsway), with two viewpoints, released under one made-up authorial name, William Henry. It is a kind of fictional record of the writer’s own experiences, twenty-five years in the making. That’s right, this book took twenty-five years to put out, and it is clear that the twenty-five years it took to write, re-write and edit were not spent idly. The two voices entwine wonderfully, giving complexity to the characters and to their wonderings about the friendship between them. The question is posed, ‘what is love and who can share it?’ Can a loving friendship between two men exist and flourish when one of them is heterosexual and the other is not? There are no boring moments here, every scene had me wrapped up in their world as if it were my own, or rather, as if I were somehow a part of their experience. When Daniel was bogged down in longing for the wrong woman I was right there with him, and when Julian gave his advice full of wisdom, I felt like I learned with Daniel too.

Then of course, there was the music. The book literally dripped with it. So I was pleased to discover that a soundtrack has been put together to go with the novel. You can find the playlist on Spotify under the title William Henry: The Julian Calendar. I thoroughly recommend downloading and listening to it while you read. It certainly heightens the experience of prose that flows like the poetry of music.

I feel blessed to have read this book and shared this experience. If I could, I would buy the whole world this well-written novel. So help me out readers of good kiwi fiction – go out and get a copy yourself. You can find or request The Julian Calendar from any good bookstore.. As ‘love will be my ink’ too, I promise you will not be disappointed.

Review by Penny M Geddis

The Julian Calendar
by William Henry
Publisher: Marsilio Press
ISBN: 978-09582355-5-6

Anne Michaels at the Auckland Writers’ Festival

Novelist, poet and Toronto Poet Laureate Anne Michaels’ books are translated into 50 languages; her latest includes All We Saw (poems) and Infinite Gradation (essays). Her Guardian Fiction, Orange Prize winning novel Fugitive Pieces was also adapted as a feature film.

ann_michaels.JPGI saw Anne Michaels twice at this year’s Auckland Writers’ Festival, first being interviewed by Michael Williams when she filled the ASB theatre, and second with others when she read from her novel The Winter Vault. Listening to her reading on both occasions I was struck by the melody of her voice, the deep richness that it brought to words that were slow, meticulous and measured. Her hour long interview was punctuated by pauses and silences, as she considered her choice of word. The audience leaned closer, waiting for the next word, wondering sometimes if it would ever come.

As Michaels said of her own writing, not a word should be wasted, whether you have four hundred or just four. She talked of the terror of even putting six letters on a page, such is her fear that the reader will not be able to hear them clearly. In a world which Michaels described as a place where we are ‘drowning in input’, she knows that she will never be able to outshout what is  around her. Her solution is to find the right tone. She is never looking to bring the reader into her own life, but instead she hopes to bring them into their own.

You understand very quickly, listening to Michaels, that you are dealing with a very private person. She did, however, give us a little about her relationship with the late writer and art crtitic John Berger. He was her ‘first reader’. I was fascinated to hear her say of him that he was just as you would imagine him from his books, a delight for me as someone who has enjoyed so many of his novels and stories. Living in the different time zones of France and Canada, she recalled Berger’s love of the fax machine, which he would use to send both writing and drawings. She smiled at the memory of waking to find a new message on her machine.

Michaels obviously has a strong passion for art. In a life that is relentlessly visual, she noted that an artist is working only with a singular moment. She talked about being drawn into the silences of paintings, since they reach us ‘without language’. It was one of those comments that inspires you to think differently. I’ve never heard anyone say of Renoir or Pissarro, ‘Oh he painted that in French’. We see the piece in our native tongue, not always the one of its creator. The appreciation transcends language.

It was great to see many of the Friday morning attendees clutching old, well-read copies of Michaels’ award winning 1996 novel Fugitive Pieces. In the long snaking line to get books signed, there were more old copies of the novel than newly purchased ones. I took that as a good sign, a novel that has been treasured and re-read, not consigned to the pile for the charity shop. Sales of her latest poetry collection All We Saw were also brisk.

In her reading on Sunday morning, Michaels followed a theme of wartime memories and responses to the holocaust. Vincent O’Sullivan read from All This by Chance, selecting a modern day reaction to visiting a much changed synagogue in Poland. Michaels selected three passages from her second novel The Winter Vault, in which she took us back to war-torn Warsaw where a flower shop was the first business to emerge from the ruins, enabling the living to remember the lost, the people and the homes reduced to rubble. I had thought that The Winter Vault was about the building of the Aswan Dam in Egypt, but now I have a copy of the book, a quick glace tells me that it is another wide ranging novel, moving from Egypt to England, through Europe and across the Atlantic to Canada. Michaels had talked about her meticulous research, always wanting to proceed from fact, so I can imagine this novel would have involved much travel as well as writing.

In her interview Michaels said ‘Memory is our mechanism for going forward’, and pointed out that as many of us no longer live in the place where we were born, we have lost a sense of belonging somewhere. She asked a fascinating question about where it is that we really belong. If it is no longer the place in which we were born, could it just as well be the place in which we fell in love or the one in which we will die? And so we circled back to the description of Michaels as ‘a poet of loss’. Her collection of poems All We Saw carries a list of seven names, friends and family, whom Michaels has lost over the space of four years.

Reviewed by Marcus Hobson

Marcus Hobson is a writer and book reviewer. He reviews regularly for www.NZBooklovers.co.nz and was a judge for their first annual fiction prize in March 2109. He is an avid book collector and writes about books, art and history for www.ARTbop.co.nz a local online arts magazine. Marcus lives with his wife and daughters on the slopes of the Kaimai Range, close to Katikati, where he competes with a huge variety of birds in his garden for the fruit off his trees.

Book Review: Frances Hodgkins: European Journeys, by Mary Kisler and Catherine Hammond

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_frances_hodgkins_european_journeysThis book, written in conjunction with an exhibition of Hodgkins’ work which will tour the country from May 2019, is an in-depth look at the life and art of one of New Zealand’s most internationally recognised artists. I knew of Frances Hodgkins of course, but had thought little of the artist as a person. This beautifully presented book is rich in detail of both the artist and her works.

The first photograph is of Hodgkins as a young woman running towards the camera, canvases beneath her arm, an improbably large hat on her head and a broad grin on her face. Her life as recounted in the book, along with over one hundred of her paintings and drawings, gives deeper understanding of her as someone who enjoyed life and lived it to the full. Quoting from the first paragraph in chapter one, she is described thus:   ‘…she exemplified the progressive attitude and spirit of the “colonial woman” a single, talented local artist who left for Europe in her early thirties.  From that point onwards Hodgkins seldom had a fixed abode, and determinedly avoided any encumbrance, without property or any family of her own, her entire life.’

The many photographs throughout the book show her growing from an energetic young woman into an older version, still vigorous in mind and body, still painting. And the paintings themselves give evidence of her ability to maintain her own independent style while experimenting with the different ideas as they evolved around her.

Her portraits, of Māori  here in New Zealand and refugees on the continent, are beautiful examples of her deftness in rendering emotion with simplicity of line and colour.

The book itself is a work of art. Large in size, it is case bound, with a dust cover picturing one of Hodgkins’ paintings. What it contains is a description in both word and pictures of the life of a remarkable woman. For the reader it will be a difficult task to determine whether to value it for the understanding it brings of one of our foremost artists, or for the sheer volume of her work it contains.  I enjoyed it for both of those reasons, and intend to delve into it time and time again.

Reviewed by Lesley Vlietstra

Frances Hodgkins: European Journeys
by Mary Kisler and Catherine Hammond
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN 9781869408930

Book Review: Sadness is a White Bird, by Moriel Rothman-Zecher

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_sadness_is_a_white_bird.jpg‘Everything was salt and sweat, summertime and sharpened swords’ – what an opening sentence that is. Except that it’s not actually the opening sentence, as there’s a small paragraph before chapter one which begins: ‘Oh Laith. I don’t know shit about flowers.’ That’s a pretty good opening sentence too, and in fact resonates throughout the novel.

I could not put this book down. It’s absolutely beautiful; challenging, confronting, poignant, powerful, political. It’s by turns – and also at the same time – a love story, a love triangle, a coming-of-age-story, a completely open and honest take on the hornet’s nest that is the Israel-Palestine conflict, a searching for family roots and more.

It’s honest, tough, uncompromising in its truth, and deserves to be very very widely read.

Moriel Rothman-Zecher is a young Israeli-born, American-raised writer. Middlebury Magazine says this about his writing:
‘To be an artist in the year 2018 is to be continually grappling with questions of privilege, authority, and authenticity. In his novel, Mori gives voice to an Arab grandmother, an IDF commander, a West Bank Palestinian, and a gay teenager in Auschwitz. If the only story you have permission to tell is your own, he thinks, then the abiding premise of art is dead. Still, telling others’ stories means telling them with great care. Mori asked a diverse cast of friends to be early readers; they fact-checked everything from his Arabic transliterations to the number of seats in an Israeli armored personnel carrier. He’s proud that, even when former IDF soldiers disagree with his politics, they don’t fault his rowdy depiction of life in the barracks.’

As a Jewish writer who both loves Israel and is unafraid to fault it, Mori is accustomed to attracting criticism from all quarters. He’s not getting any criticism from this reviewer.

The protagonist, Jonathan, is nearly 18 and about to do his compulsory army service. (Moriel refused to his, and ended up in a military prison for 20 days). School is over, he and his friends (who will also go into the army) are spending summer mucking around, smoking, drinking a bit, smoking other substances a lot, and generally killing time. Then Jonathan meets (via his mother’s activist work) Nimreen and Laith, Palestinian twins. They form an instant and strong connection and spend every Friday together, talking, smoking, hanging out. They believe they can have it all, but that faith is shaken when Jonathan goes to the army.

I am not going to give anything else away. I think that Rothman-Zecher has written a really remarkable novel. If you are interested at all in the conflict between Israel and Palestine, you won’t find any quick answers here, but you will find a great deal of insight into the complexity of the situation, the reality of life in the region, and the power of fiction to build bridges.

I think this book would be a great one to put into senior school libraries, but it’s not a kids’ book. I think public libraries should stock it, and I think you should all just go and get it, and read it. You cannot fail to be moved.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

Sadness is a white bird
by Moriel Rothman-Zecher
Washington Square Press
ISBN 9781501176272

Book Review: The Cat from Muzzle, by Sally Sutton, illustrated by Scott Tulloch

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_the_cat_from_muzzleDwayne is a cat who made a 5-week trip from Kaikoura back to his original home of Muzzle Station in Southern Marlborough. While this story is based on a true story, what and who he encountered can only be imagined, in this case by Sally Sutton and Scott Tulloch.

Dwayne is a tough tabby cat with sharp claws.  He loves living at Muzzle Station. The bleating sheep, the gentle cows and the clucking chooks. Moving day comes around. They leave the farm, flying to their new home. Dwayne does not cope. He howled and howled as he doesn’t want to move to Kaikoura. The new house is big and bright but all he wantsis to be back at the Station, so off he goes, one determined cat to start his journey back to Muzzle.

Off Dwayne leaves walking and walking until his paws were sore. He walked for hours and days, eating what he could along the way. A friendly hunter shared his fire, inviting Dwayne to come and live with him but this Muzzle cat had somewhere else to be.

This is a wonderful story of tenacity and courage. I read this to my 4 ½ year old granddaughter Quinn who is the proud co-owner along with her older sister Abby, to two cats. One is called Gus, who is a tabby and a big fluffy puss called Rocky (so named to give him mana among other cats!). Quinn wanted to know why Dwayne wanted to go back to Muzzle Station and not stay with his owners. She can’t imagine Gus or Rocky ever leaving her. She told me she loves them this much………………………………..!

The Illustrations by the wonderful artist Scott Tulloch are simply beautiful. This is a great book. This would make a wonderful present.

Reviewed by Christine Frayling

The Cat from Muzzle
by Sally Sutton, illustrated by Scott Tulloch
Published by Puffin NZ
ISBN 9780143773085

Book Review: Close to the Wind, by David B. Hill

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_close_to_the_windThis is an unassuming book about the wartime escape of a New Zealand reserve sailor, Len Hill. Told by his son David, it is part family history, and part creative non-fiction, with the dialogue between the servicemen being re-created by the author. But it’s a good read, based on an extraordinary maritime escape from Singapore in 1942.

For an appreciation of the story and the perspective of the author it is necessary to actually read the Afterword first. One needs to realise that it is the son who is writing the story of his father and his comrades. The other two main comrades became the author’s godfathers, so this is quite an intimate portrayal. Also, by reading the Acknowledgements it becomes clear that this is an alternate version of the escape from Singapore in 1942, that provides something of a different view to that of a book published by an English survivor who was not part of the successful final voyage.

What we get therefore is very much a New Zealand version, with Kiwi heroes who are hounded by the advancing Japanese forces all the way along the coast of Sumatra. After fleeing in their Fairmile craft ML310 with senior British officers, the New Zealand sailors come aground on the small island of Tjibia. The survivors decide to take a small craft they have found, which only holds five men, through the Java Sea to Batavia, before the Japanese can capture it. They eventually reach the Java mainland with some Dutch sailors, only to have to find another vessel to flee to Australia.

The interaction with the Dutch servicemen, who are also part indigenous, adds an interesting sub-text to the adventure. The author identifies the ethnic tensions underlying the war effort in New Zealand, and the whakapapa element in his own family history, including the loss of Māori great-uncles in the First World War. This theme is explored through his father Len’s dialogue with a Māori soldier on the initial trip of the navy reservists to England in 1941. The soldier, Haami Parata, does not appear again in the story, but his knowledge of tikanga is portrayed as a key influence on the young Len Hill, even though he had really been brought up a Pākehā.

Perhaps it was the author’s choice to enhance this association, which may have otherwise been seen as fleeting, compared with the close bonds forged on the tiny yacht which brought the sailors to eventual safety. There is also the problem that most of the dialogue must be filled in, which is perhaps easier in the combat situation, than in the parts of the book that include visiting the bars and nightspots of Singapore.

Overall, I found this a riveting story and a pleasure to read, and it was obviously a labour of love. Even for those not necessarily interested in war stories this would be of interest, without the cover hinting of the very dramatic adventures inside the book. The book does lack a detailed map of the South Asian area, and perhaps could have placed the archival photographs as a centrepiece rather than as an appendix, with higher quality paper. But otherwise this very personal project was fully realised.

Reviewed by Simon Boyce

Close to the Wind
by David B. Hill
Published by Huia Publishers
9781775503491