Book Review: The Necessary Angel, by C K Stead

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_necessary_angelSet in Paris in 2014, this is the first novel from C K Stead in five years. It follows the fortunes of Max, an expat Kiwi working in Paris, married to a French woman and father of two children. It is a literary novel, both in content and in style. Max is a lecturer and writer so his world is peopled with academics. Reading, writing and literary criticism are central to the story along with politics and change. In 2014 Europe was grappling with economic, migrant and terrorist issues. These are the background and form a final twist at the end of the tale.

On another level it is also about love, relationships and fidelity. The approach has a distinctly French flair, but as Max is a New Zealander we see events with a slightly blurred lens. He moves between relationships in a similar way to his conversations: highly academic but not totally committed. The setting is perhaps one of the main characters as we wend our way down back streets, into courtyards and cafes and through apartments. This helps the reader become part of the story rather than reading from the outside.

Much of the text involves discussions about books I have read and long forgotten. I regretted my ignorance of some and felt relieved I had not tried others. I can see this book being much discussed and debated by the literati, but it was a challenge to one less read. At times the complex web of relationships and half-truths became hard to follow, and this became even more complicated when an artwork disappears.

Waiting 5 years for this publication was well worth while. IIt is not a quick read, but a slow savour, inviting you to re-read and re-think the ideas within, to allow you to truly enjoy the book. In some ways it is like a visit to the art gallery, where each room uncovers new treasures.

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

The Necessary Angel
by C K Stead
Published by Allen & Unwin NZ
ISBN 9781760631529


Book Review: Shelf Life, by C. K. Stead

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_shelf_lifeI looked forward to reading this book by our former poet laureate and well known man of letters. It transpired, though, to be less of a read and more of a dip in and out. Stead is a thoughtful man with strong opinions which are based on a long experience of the literary world in New Zealand and the people that world has contained over the years. An argument well presented is always interesting, even if only as a comparison to one’s own opinion or beliefs, and I found myself reading an essay or interview then spending time reflecting on Stead’s words.

His writings on Mansfield and the criticisms leveled at her by those who came after her, present a microcosm of the Colonial’s dilemma – how to wrench oneself free of the home country’s influence while attempting to rise above the cultural cringe engendered by comparisons with literary giants from the past.

The book is a delight of words, valuable for that alone, when language is no longer valued for the most part. But to read the thoughts of an erudite man, familiar, as Stead is, with his subject, is to enjoy the company of those of whom he writes, whether still alive or long dead.

His reviews of others’ work are thoughtful and concise with many examples added, which enables the reader to build his own understanding and knowledge of a poet or author. The index at the back of the book gives an indication of how wide Stead’s range of interests are, and offers the reader a regular smorgasbord of subjects for contemplation and consideration.

As Stead says of Patrick Evans novel Gifted, this is “literature for the literate and the literary,” and it is certainly a treat for those such inclined. But even a mild interest in the thoughts of a man with a wide experience of New Zealand writing would be rewarded by a dip into its pages.

Reviewed by Lesley Vlietstra

Shelf Life: Reviews, Replies and Reminiscences
by C. K. Stead
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN 9781869408497

Book Review: The Blue Voyage and Other Poems, by Anne French

Available on 30 November in bookshops nationwide.

“How your face lit up, explaining
the blue voyage to me”cv_the_blue_voyage

Bookended by a short collection of poems by William Butler “Bill” Smith and some translations of Korean poet Han Yong-un’s work, Anne French’s new poetry collection, The Blue Voyage and Other Poems, settles itself into a context spanning oceans. From Bill and New Zealand, to the coasts of Turkey, and to Yong-un’s Korea, French writes alongside her fellow poets and the history of the idea of the blue voyage along the south-western Turkish coast.

Bill’s poetry anchors itself in the familiar, not venturing too far out from the New Zealand shoreline. It is a good starting point for this collection, as his experience feels like home, and his writing invites the reader into a conversation that slowly leads towards French and her poetry. He moves from the home, slowly towards the front porch and out into the water that sits on the edge of the blue voyage, from the kitchen and physical love of “Hot bread shop” to the dinghy and thoughts of the past in “Fishing at the Noises.”

French’s poems follow on from those of Bill and slowly move themselves out from the shore and into the waters of the Turkish coast. It takes a couple of poems to get ready for the blue voyage, and we see a carefully considered creation of the world of a seafarer. But it is the title poem that stretches out its characters and places in vivid detail. The words ebb and flow, the unknown resurfaces again and again, the Turkish faces and words, the wildflowers in Datҫa, the cats in Palamutbükü, until finally she turns towards England and asks How can I leave all this? / The roses, the oleander, / the sunshine, the mountains, / the water full of little fish, / the perfect sailing breeze. But leave she does, towards other places documented by her poetry. She takes others with her, like C.K. Stead (El Faro) and Geoff Park (Black notebook and On the way), and pays tribute to poetry, to sailing, and to love and life.

In the final section, “Going to Gwangju,” French makes her way to Korea and the tragic history of Gwangju. She recognises herself as an outsider and comes to understand the personal history, Only now I understand / the words you didn’t say. / ‘Gwangju’ means massacre. This poem highlights a point in Korean history that is met with sadness, and with silence. French’s sijo builds on this further, “Now silent on Achasan, your voice carries clearly across the century.”

It is interesting then to turn the page to the translations of the Korean poet, Han Yong-un. Silence is here also, but it is The Silence of Love. These love poems, echoing those of Bill Smith and those of Anne French earlier on in the collection, bring the book to a neat close, until finally, Waiting / for the ringing of the bells announcing daybreak, / I put down my brush.

Reviewed by Matthias Metzler

The Blue Voyage and Other Poems
by Anne French
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN 9781869408428