DWRF: Catherine Chidgey, with Emma Neale

Each time the Writers & Readers Festival comes to town, the Dunedin autumn becomes clear, still and nuanced. Catherine Chidgey sat on stage this Sunday afternoon and embodied the qualities of the season.

cv_the_wish_child_nzThe festival audience was treated to an articulate conversation between Chidgey and Emma Neale, herself a poised speaker and talented writer. The word and thought chemistry between the two speakers was significant, and it enabled a depth of response from Chidgey on such topics as the tug of Germany, the novelist’s craft and the thirteen-year gestation of her new novel, The Wish Child.

Neale began with an autobiography of Chidgey the writer, and a description of her particular talents. This was an excellent way to bring the audience into the circle of conversation. Chidgey then read a long passage from The Wish Child; this drew the listeners in closer still, and provided context for the ongoing discussion (as well as convincing anyone sensible that this was a book to buy and read in its entirety).

The scene that was read was laden with sensual, often visceral detail ‘…the glittering callipers above his skull…’ ‘…the bees huddled in their hives… and the geese hung by their necks…’ and foreshadowing ‘German boys should be brave… should know that some things had to die’; this combination of delicate detail and exaggerated description is deliberate on the part of Chidgey, and a feature of her best writing. There are echoes of Gunter Grass’s Tin Drum here. The effect is a sense of constant unease for the reader, a feeling that death lives inside ripe matter. This style of writing, of perceiving is entirely appropriate to the subject of the novel: Nazi Germany and its aftermath, a time when bizarre, exaggerated things happened and became part of daily life.

berlin-1816944_960_720.jpgDuring the course of a very swift hour, with fingers fluttering in a Lynchian sort of way, Chidgey laid out the processes involved in writing The Wish Child: her connection to Germany based on time spent there as a shy high school student from Lower Hutt, then on a scholarship in Berlin not long after the fall of the wall, being affected by the visible history in a city still divided. She spoke of the balance to be found between writing and researching, so that the latter doesn’t dominate unduly yet is given the opportunity to shape the narrative. She spoke of the scope of this novel being larger than any she had written previously, of how life events intervene, of how writing Facebook posts about cats had distracted her at times… cue knowing laughter from the audience. Now she works two jobs and has a toddler, so 6am has become the time to write, which has not been a bad thing, ‘as the internal censor does not yet seem to be on!’

When Emma Neale closed the session with the question, ‘And what next?’ Chidgey was able to allude to two projects in progress, which was reassuring; from a selfish point of view, it is good to think that after The Wish Child there will be more from the still, clear, nuanced mind of a fine, fine writer.

Attended and reviewed by Aaron Blaker on behalf of Booksellers NZ

Ed’s note: Catherine Chidgey’s The Wish Child (VUP) and Emma Neale’s Billy Bird (are both up for the Acorn Foundation Literary Award at the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards on Tuesday evening. You can see Chidgey at various events during the Auckland Writers Festival. You can similarly, see Neale at the Auckland Writers Festival next week.

The Wish Child
by Catherine Chidgey
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776560622

Billy Bird
by Emma Neale
Published by Vintage NZ
ISBN 9780143770053

Book Review: Billy Bird, by Emma Neale

“…If sex can accidentally make something as wild, complex, erratic, dogged, miraculous, sensitive, vulnerable, solid, unaware, bizarre, intractable, awful and joyful as a human child, why, in a specific instance, couldn’t it be said to help make love?”

cv_billy_birdThis is the voice of somebody who understands children, and parenthood. Billy Bird is a magnificent book. It’s sad, and happy, and funny, and brutal – and paradigm-breaking. As you will already know if you have read the blurb, or indeed the title: Billy is becoming a bird. He doesn’t want to be a bird, he is starting to behave as one would, for hours sometimes. This story is about how a family operates emotionally – and how important communication is when it is time to heal.

This is the point where I wonder – how much of a spoiler is it to say somebody significant dies? I think I can say that, and possibly that that somebody is a child. Because I get a bit sensitive around the death of a child, so if this is something you do not like to read about, here is your warning. But yet. Even if you do, and it triggers, this book may be the book that starts your healing. So don’t be shy of it. I will go just one step further and say: this is not a murder mystery. But you could probably tell that from the marked lack of black and red on the cover.

So this happens, and nothing changes. Well, not quite. Everything changes. But it takes awhile for their emotional power to be understood by our protagonists, who as we start driving towards the solution, are Billy, aged 8 or so, and his mum Iris and dad Liam. Iris’s voice: “Maybe…death had turned up her sensitivity to these things: The daily news-alarms of storms, acidic seas, dwindling species, drought, energy wars, religious wars, civil wars, avenging blood with blood, as if that ever brought the dead back…This sense of the world on the precipice…was it worse than it had ever been, or was she losing her own equilibrium?”

After events in the novel come to a head, the family finds a safe space to talk, with a Psychologist and her nurse. Billy is wondering about his dad “…if he’d be like that when he was a man. Did he have to be? What if you didn’t want to be like your mum or your dad? Was there some third person he could be?” The space created by his mum and dad’s non-communication fills with a pile of worries, big and small; and a lot of bird-feelings for Billy.

I’ve used a lot of quotes in this review, because there were so many times when I thought ‘Exactly!’ and ‘man how can I explain what this writing does to you.’ Writing this wonderful is unusual and rare, though it sometimes happens when poets turn to prose. There are sections of the novel in verse – the initial sex scene, ingeniously –and this adds an otherworldly brilliance to the writing.

I know of Emma Neale as an excellent editor: now I am going to go back and read everything else Emma Neale has written. I cannot recommend this book highly enough. Like all truly good books, it fills you with empathy, and a sense of joy in words and in life. I hope this makes it onto the longlist for the Acorn Foundation Literary Award.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

Billy Bird
by Emma Neale
Published by Vintage NZ
ISBN 9780143770053

Book Review: Mansfield & Me, by Sarah Laing

Available now in bookshops nationwide.This book is launched tonight at Unity Books Wellington, from 6pm.

cv_mansfield_and_meI am genuinely curious to see where this book ends up on the bestsellers lists: fiction or non-fiction? Two things are for sure: it’s from NZ, and it’s going to be there.

I’ve admired Sarah Laing’s work since her first publication, Coming up roses. Her web comic Let Me Be Frank has been a mainstay in my regular rounds of websites of people I like to see life alongside, and it is a joy to see her artistic talent, her descriptions of real life, and her skill with sort-of fiction come together in Mansfield & Me.

Sarah Laing’s obsession with Mansfield as a like-mind begins with a drawing in her Aunt Aliosn’s home drawn by Mansfield’s friend Edith Robison, “She was a naughty girl, that Kathleen.” The story takes off from there, drawing phases of Sarah’s life and aligning them either to parts of Mansfield’s life, or her stories. ‘Her first ball’ is one of my favourite chapters, with the alignment of Laing’s preparations for her first ball with the story of that name by Katherine Mansfield, segued nicely through a read-aloud of this story in class, and finished with a rumination on what Mansfield might have been feeling when she wrote the story.

As the book carries on, the alignment of Laing and Mansfield’s lives becomes more marked. As Kim Hill remarked in her interview with Laing on Radio NZ over the weekend, it isn’t forced. The similarities are certainly there. Her determination to be what she was destined to be – graphic designer, writer, whatever – is similar. The series of varied sexual relationships – now quite usual and accepted, but in Mansfield’s days possibly usual (in the Bloomsbury group at least) but not widely accepted. And the reaction that occurs in many New Zealanders at some stage – a desire to be anywhere but here, to kickstart your life somewhere that isn’t so small, so small-minded.

My emotions at the end of this book were confused. I was a little jealous – I’m always a little jealous of people A Lot more talented than I, and Laing has followed her passions in a way I don’t dare to. But then I was just… wow. This book is a fabulous piece of work, and one that will stick around in Mansfield’s ouevre, ensuring Sarah Laing’s name stays in the public consciousness. And that it ought to.

And, again inspired by a remark from Kim Hill, it has also acted as a ‘doorway drug’. I’m going to go to the secret bookshelf under the stairs and find the collection of Katherine Mansfield’s short stories I have stashed there somewhere; and get inspired by her.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

Mansfield & Me: A Graphic Memoir
by Sarah Laing
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776560691

Afterword: Just reflecting on this book, and on Billy Bird (which I haven’t yet published my review of but loved); and thinking while I understand the cultural cringe that has led to our literature to be brushed off by too many readers, these types of books are why we need to read New Zealand authors. I could not have felt this close to a woman growing up in New York, or Toronto, or Iraq. And while Billy Bird had a more international feel, it and other recent books by the likes of Danyl McLauchlan and Tim Wilson, just prove the fact that New Zealand has more talented writers than anybody could suspect; and they don’t all write in one genre. They don’t write in one note. They write diverse, creative and exciting work: read it.