Book Review: Baby, by Annaleese Jochems

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_hires_babyWow, what an amazing talent this young woman is. At all of 23 years of age, there is an urgency and energy to Annaleese Jochems’ writing. Her insight into how social media, celebrity culture, the culture of ‘me’, and how the resultant obsession with self has manipulated her generation of young people is spectacular. The result is a monster of a young woman, the 21-year-old Cynthia, whose life and existence is completely dominated by her dangerously self absorbed, meaningless and boring existence.

This novel is well and truly a modern urban cautionary fable, about that privileged and over indulged generation us oldies like to call entitled, how their perception of self is so out of whack, and the consequences when it all goes wrong. A total nut job. I have already admitted I am the wrong demographic for this novel, even though I get what is going on (I think), but my 20 year old daughter, clearly of the same demographic as Cynthia and the author thought the book way too weird to continue reading. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it is weird, but it is certainly disturbing.

Cynthia has a life of nothing. She has been to university, although it is not clear if she completed her degree or dropped out. She has no job, lives at her father’s home, a man who appears to be both physically and emotionally absent, but he does have a great bank balance, spends all her time on her phone, watching movies, playing with her dog Snot-head (who calls their dog such a name?) and doing yoga. Anahera is the yoga instructor, a slightly older woman, with whom Cynthia becomes obsessed. When Anahera turns up on her doorstep claiming she has left her husband, the madness begins. After raiding her father’s bank account, they drive off to Paihia, where absurdly, they purchase a boat called Baby, living on it just off the shore of Paihia beach.

Talk about cabin fever. As the days pass, and with no fixed plan of action, they begin to run out of money, Snot-head does not take well to marine life, Anahera remains disturbingly elusive, wanting to spend all her time swimming from the boat to an off shore island. Their random existence leads them to random encounters with others, none of which end well, Cynthia increasingly out of touch with reality, out of control with her emotions and actions.

So a bizarre plot with not a single likeable or even relatable character. All using each other for their own ends, the lines of communication and connection are constantly twisted and warped. The novel is narrated entirely from Cynthia’s self-absorbed perspective, so cleverly we get to find out very little about the other characters and what is going on in their minds with the strange set up they find themselves in.

I wouldn’t say I enjoyed this book, some very strange and disturbing stuff goes on. But as an insight into the over stimulated mind of a young person it is extraordinary. As is the quality of the writing, the low level tension held through out, beginning with the first line  “Cynthia can understand how Anahera feels just by looking at her body.”, to the last paragraph  “For now, she shifts her head from one side to the other, resting it. Time passes and the trees are silent. A small winged bug lands on her wrist then flies away. She doesn’t notice.” This is an amazing new voice in NZ writing, we should treasure and nurture her, she will go onto great things.

Reviewed by Felicity Murray

by Annaleese Jochems
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN 9781776561667

Book Review: Home, edited by Thom Conroy

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_home_new_writingThere was a flood of excitement when this collection came out, and understandably so. It’s beautiful and thick with a classy list of contributors and a solid concept; personal essays from NZ writers on what home means to them. It’s also from a new publisher, Massy University Press. The theme is topical, and timeless; intensely personal, and universal – it’s everything we want a personal essay to be. Mostly this collection is all of those things, but occasionally it meanders off into upper-middle-class small talk slush.  The theme might be too personal for some writers. A few got caught up in describing their household furniture.

Some of the pieces are absolute literature, particularly those that ruminate on home, and something else. Ashleigh Young, in my new favourite Ashleigh Young essay – Matrices, writes about home and secrets, specifically those of other people. With the accuracy and honesty that characterise her writing, she writes of her childhood self, ‘The truth is, whenever I flagrantly invaded someone’s privacy, I felt that somehow I’d won. It was as if we were always playing a game but others kept forgetting we were playing it.’

Gina Cole’s Grandma instructs her on how to dive for turtles and they watch TV together, among many other things. She’s hard to quote without typing out the whole thing (I like this essay, the turtles are worth knowing about!) so I’ll stick with a very brilliant metaphor for Muldoon’s hair: ‘His left cheek is pulled into a rictus of a smile. He looks bald although there are thin strips of hair combed straight back from a neat receding hairline and running down the middle of his head and on each side of his ears… like tiny tentacles gripping on to an egg.’

Martin Edmond writes a biography of Mollie, a circus elephant now buried in Ohakune. Sarah Jane Barnett is marvellous on running as a way to find a home in your own body, a point past pain where you can be in solitude and peace with yourself.

I felt very at home with Helen Lehndorf, who writes with power and honesty about her son’s autism, and about love. ‘All the good fights I fought, I fought for him.’

In Bonnie Etherington’s essay, ‘Never Coming Home,’ a village elder in West Papua tells her father, ‘In the past we knew who the enemy was. It was Suharto, so we could fight him. But now, we know we are being destroyed, but we don’t know who by. How do you fight something when you don’t know what or who it is?’ and she continues, ‘Suharto’s fall was meant to solve many things. And people can move now without feeling his eyes on them. But the scars in Papua’s dirt grow and the trees keep falling, squeezing people from their gardens and their homes as they watch people from elsewhere in Indonesia move in on the ‘empty’ land.’

I have more favourites, but I don’t want to simply quote and praise things I liked, because as I said it often felt a lot like small talk. There are a lot of middle-aged, daddish sentences like, ‘In our family we all saw sport as a stimulating challenge, physically, mentally and technically. That’s why we liked it so much.’

I don’t want to single anyone out because it happens right across the board, including in some of my favourites. Halfway through the collection I started wondering what I would submit if commissioned to write a personal essay about home? My essay would be terribly self-indulgent and tedious. It would be about how glad I am that the Karori Countdown have widened their selection of teas, but how I still think that, actually, it would lovely to have a few more options. So, when I think about how bad things might have been, this collection is exceptionally good.

Not that Home is an uninteresting or irrelevant topic, far from it. But it’s a subject that can bring out the most dreary in anyone if they’re not careful.

Home is fun to read, relevant, compassionate and frequently sharp. It’s a big book, and not too expensive, so I’d recommend it to anyone on the condition that they make sure not to beat themselves up if they end up skipping the odd page, or even a few whole essays.

Reviewed by Annaleese Jochems

Home: New Writing
by Thom Conroy
Published by Massey University PRess
ISBN 9780994140753

Book Review: Five Strings, by Apirana Taylor

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_five_strings.jpgIt’s an underrated pleasure to read a book and identify with it’s protagonist, to sit nestled inside their mind and language, and in the some of the best books – to love another character through them. Apirana Taylor’s Five Strings achieves this with two protagonists, Mack and Puti: We look into Puti’s ‘fish-bowl’ eyes from Mack’s perspective, and a moment later look back through them at the sun highlighting Mack’s own ‘jowly chops.’

Puti and Mack are both sickness beneficiaries and alcoholics. They live in a room together, and walk daily to the public loos to wash their dishes, and weekly to the pools to shower. They’re regulars at the One Way Up Tavern, where they’ve found their community, but between Mondays when they run out of money, and Wednesdays when they get paid, they’ve got no-one but each other.

Taylor makes affectionate use of language. Mack describes his circumstances as ‘Dickensian’, and Five Strings is full of bums, flops, pukus, and bastards. The book’s world is sensuous. It’s characters never have sex due to a mutual combination of apathy and fear, but a scene where Mack makes Puti a banana sandwich served (for this reader, at least) as a sufficient substitute:

He peeled off their jackets. He buttered four slices of bread with the thinnest skin of margarine, then placed each banana on top of a piece of bread. He crushed and spread the fruit with his knife taking care to ensure the black and white pulpy mass didn’t flow over the bread’s borders. He capped the two spread slices with another piece of bread…

He gave Puti her sandwich. She watched him build it with as much concern, care and concentration as he took in making it. She cupped the sandwich in her hands, like someone taking the holy bread for communion.

Five Strings is a uncomfortable study of the tender, painful interplay of power and care in long-term love. The couple look to each other for everything their society isn’t giving them and frequently come up short. They both claim to be burdened by the other’s dependence, but the reader senses that really Five Strings is about the need to be needed, and so it’s doubly poignant when they fail each other.

During the first two thirds of the novel everything that happens seems to have happened multiple times before. This is a sort of intimacy; we learn the pattern of the days and weeks their relationship is made of. But towards the end of the second third a reader might begin to wonder if another trip to the pub with Mack is necessary, when after all he’ll only get drunk, argue with the bartender, then philosophise to no-one about modern meaninglessness and the stupidity of the modern work week.

Sometimes Five Strings feels like a play that could go through just one more rehearsal. The sentences are often stilted, pulling the reader out of the minds of the characters and back into that of a person looking at a book. Often, too, the characterisation of minor characters feels stagey. Sometimes this a problem and sometimes it isn’t. Dolorous ‘a bearded transvestite’ and ‘Greta Garbage’ both read like caricatures, not characters, and the novel gains nothing by alienating us from them.

When the character in question is an authority figure, someone sitting at a remove from the story, the flatness is fun and in accordance with a sort of realism. When Puti’s anger management therapist arrives late to their meeting saying, ‘Don’t think I’m late. It’s all part of the new policy. Give the clients time to settle in. Time to relax and stretch out those thoughts,’ we can’t help but snort our derision. Even though Sandra’s character doesn’t seem quite realistic, the way the system she represents grates on Puti absolutely does.

Taylor’s irony is existential too. When Mack’s drunk and happy he thinks, ‘[there’s] nothing wrong with the world, and if there [is he’ll] fix it.’ Drugs and alcohol are the routine of Mack and Puti’s lives, every other priority is submerged under them. Such narratives are often deterministic and tautological – he needs alcohol because… he needs alcohol – but Five Strings has an intimate understanding of its characters in both their desperation to escape their addictions and their ecstasy in being subsumed in them. We see how drugs and alcohol can be both a choice and an inevitability at once.

Taylor has a sharp, dramatic sense of everyday practicalities and the way their difficulty is compounded by poverty, but Five Strings is also a story of love and ultimately of reclamation.

Reviewed by Annaleese Jochems

Five Strings
by Apirana Taylor
Published by Anahera Press
ISBN 9780473389482