Book review: Lifting, by Damien Wilkins

Available in selected bookshops nationwide.cv_lifting.jpg

Lifting follows Amy, a store detective working at a famous historic department store in the last few weeks that it is open before closing for good.  The store is called ‘Cutty’s, but it is difficult not to replace that with ‘Kirkcaldie and Stains’ in your head.  The setting is so unabashedly Wellington, and as a person suddenly surprised to discover she has lived quarter of her life there, I enjoyed the very present Wellington setting.

Lifting is a character study of Amy, with a plot that moves you towards an ominously shadowed ending.  Amy is introduced as a busy working parent  balancing a baby, finances and work with her husband, a supportive but not robust mother and a new challenge  looming unemployment as the store is about to close.  Amy is a store detective, and is very good at her job  how did she get the skill set to do this?  Why is she being interviewed by the police?

Past and present are all mixed together as Lifting is told from Amy’s perspective  uncensored and with her whole life narrative available at any one time to inform the story.  I found Amy a very honest character, without the superficial heightened self-perspective given to many characters in books.  Amy is Amy, she makes no great discoveries about herself  but she is very interesting and approachable.  Definitely one of the best written characters I’ve read in quite a while.

The slow deconstruction of Cutty’s is mirrored with the deconstruction of Amy  so much time is given to her description, and thoughts.  While there is a sense of foreboding as the book draws to a close, the plot is not allowed to take over the exploration of Amy.  It was a very compelling read.

Reviewed by Emma Rutherford

by Damien Wilkins
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN 9781776561025

Book Review: Dad Art, by Damien Wilkins

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_dad_artSometimes, not only does life pull the rug out from under you, but it kicks you round the ribs while you’re down. In Damien Wilkins’ new novel, Dad Art, we meet Michael as he picks himself up, and starts to dust himself off. His wife has left, his beloved daughter has flown the nest and the city, the family house has been sold. One parent has passed away recently, the other is sinking into the fog of dementia. What’s he got left to hang on to?

Michael gets on with getting on. He immerses himself in his work, takes Te Reo Māori lessons and has a paddle in the murky waters of internet dating. An encounter with an intriguing woman he met online leads him down a path he hadn’t considered; the return of his daughter with an artist in tow forces him to confront his attitudes to her, to art, and eventually, his world view.

Michael’s story felt familiar to me in lots of ways; my own daughter has headed off to Flattingville, and is at university doing things I only sort-of understand, and, like Michael, I’m a Wellingtonian. Anyone who has ever tried internet dating will recognise the awkward first meeting and the mutual scratchiness of getting to know a new person and trying to work out if they might be a good match.

Wellington is very much a character in the novel, as is the time, 2015 or thereabouts. The flag referendum looms, the demise of Campbell Live is imminent, Treaty issues come up in conversation, his phone gives him Te Kupu o te Rā; and Wellington institutions, be they restaurants, theatres, playgrounds, Courtenay Place or the local waterways, all make their presence felt.

Dad Art snuck up on me. For a while it was just a book that I was reading, but I realised about two-thirds of the way through I was thinking about it when I was doing other things. Parts of the story are very affecting; scenes with Michael’s dad made me long for my grandmother, who had dementia before she died; the high school maths club outing to the river was awful in the inevitability of the outcome.

This is a story about regeneration, love, and ultimately, hope and acceptance. There’s much more to recognise than Wellington landmarks and recent news stories; the themes are universal, even if the situations aren’t.

Reviewed by Rachel Moore

Dad Art
by Damien Wilkins
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776560561

Etgar Keret: This Israeli Life

pp_etgar_keretThis was one of those events that I picked at random, on the grounds that Etgar Keret sounded like an interesting name, and I don’t know many Israeli people and would like to hear from one. I’m so glad I did.

Damien Wilkins interviewed Israeli author, filmmaker and cartoonist Etgar Keret at the Embassy Theatre. Keret was warm, funny, thoughtful and compassionate. I made an immediate resolution to read all his books.

He spoke about ‘the wandering Jew’, saying that the concept of a Jew living in their own country is pretty new. For example, a Kiwi Jew can think of themselves as a Jew (as distinct from New Zealanders) and as a Kiwi (as distinct from Jews). Reflexiveness is a fundamental Jewish trait, but that two-tier thinking is the first thing you give up when you have your own country. Keret travels a lot, and he says this travel enables him to reintroduce himself to Israel, and to be more aware of change.

Keret spoke about fighting, both in the sense of war and in the sense of the artistic struggle. He said his mother told him if he must fight, to fight someone smaller. He joked about his own small stature, saying in New Zealand maybe he could wrestle some possums. “I became a writer because it’s the only way I know how to fight and not to hurt anybody. I want to create in an environment that has some kind of friction; I want to to feel courageous in the creative sphere.”

He spoke about the subversive power of literature, saying “There’s nothing cultural about a boycott … You never know what you’re going to find in a book. I want people to read books and be affected by them.” Keret admires “the ambiguity of existence”, although “it’s difficult to keep this ambiguity when you live in a horrifying reality.” He spoke about how literature enables us to see all people, even people who do terrible things, as humans, and akin to us in their humanity.

Keret says the constant politicisation is tiring. “I have a yearning to live in Golden Bay and write a story about a kid who finds a crab and no one tries to figure out whether the crab is the Palestinians.” With his strong accent and beautiful voice, Keret was a pleasure to listen to.

Attended and reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage

Etgar Keret: This Israeli Life
12.30pm, Friday 11 March, at The Embassy
NZ Festival Writer’s Week, Wellington

Etgar will take the stage once more as a judge of Literary Idol, on Sunday, 13 March.

Book Review: Max Gate, by Damien Wilkins

Max Gate will be available in bookstores from 12 September.

I can’t think of a single author writing today who could garner the intense media cv_max_gatespeculation surrounding their imminent demise that Thomas Hardy attracted in January 1928. So famous and popular and revered was this man that there was a very bitter dispute between the locals and the literati over where he should be buried – at Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey or beside his first wife in parish of Stinsford where he was born in his beloved Dorchester.

The death of Thomas Hardy and the furore surrounding it are the subjects of this latest novel by highly regarded, award winning New Zealand writer Damien Wilkins. Thomas Hardy, who died at the very grand age of 88, was probably England’s greatest living author at that time. Author of such classics as Far From the Madding Crowd, The Mayor of Casterbridge, Tess of the d’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure, he had in the previous twenty years or so returned to writing poetry. Much of his poetry deals with his first wife Emma, who he seemed to have a tortured love-hate relationship with, as well his love of nature, his preoccupation with man’s suffering and life’s disappointments. And these are the major themes that permeate through this carefully crafted and beautifully written novel.

The story is not so much about Thomas Hardy himself, who is lying in his bed, death imminent, but more about the people directly affected by his passing – those living at Max Gate, his much loved house that he designed and lived in for over 40 years.  And let us not forget Wessex, Hardy’s devoted terrier.  The story is narrated primarily by a maid of the house, Nellie Titterington, but also moves gracefully to and fro between her, second wife Florence Hardy, his executor Mr Cockerell, his elderly brother and sister, the author James Barrie and several other characters who may or may not have been real people.

So what does one do when waiting for a loved one to die? One reflects on life with the loved one, and this is what the main characters do. Particularly Florence, who was initially a secretary to Mr Hardy, and then married him on the death of his first wife, Emma. Florence, considerably younger than Thomas, is a fairly tortured soul. Never feeling fully accepted as Thomas’ wife due to her youth and what would appear to be Thomas’ shortcomings in the sensitive husband department, she is doing her best to walk the fine line between keeping her husband’s final wishes – burial locally, and keeping the public happy – privacy vs celebrity. Nellie is her maid, and so is privy to Florence’s emotion and distress. She, in turn, has to maintain the fine line between maid and confidante, in view of the uncertainty of her own fate once Mr Hardy dies.

There are a number of other ‘fine line’ relationships and situations in this novel – Nellie’s relationship with a young reporter Alex Peters; Alex himself desperate to be the one to have the first scoop on Hardy’s death and yet, as a local, wanting to protect him from the likes of Cockerell and Barrie; Florence’s own relationship with Barrie; a conversation between Barrie and the doctor over what is more important, the brain or the heart; being a celebrity versus the need for privacy. Interspersed through the novel are many of Hardy’s own writings, in particular his poetry, which Wilkins has referred to in his note at the end of the book.

I don’t really know anything at all about Thomas Hardy or his writings, and have only seen a 2008 BBC TV adaptation of Tess of the d’Urbervilles, which was about as gloomy and awful and sad as you can get. It doesn’t compel me to read any of his novels, but his life was certainly interesting and one of deep introspection. There is some very beautiful writing in this book, and I certainly think his poetry is worth a look. There is a lot going on in this novel of just over 200 pages, and really, I have barely scratched the surface. Much like Thomas Hardy really – full of hidden depths.

Reviewed by Felicity Murray

Max Gate
by Damien Wilkins
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN 9780864738998