Book Review: The Last Time We Spoke, by Fiona Sussman

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cv_the_last_time_we_spokeTwo boys, born two years apart in Auckland. One, Jack Reid, born to white middle class parents, Carla and Keith, teacher and farmer respectively. A much longed-for only child, born when his parents had long given up hope of ever becoming parents. Now 18 years old, Jack works in a bank in the city, has a girlfriend and has come home for the night to help his parents celebrate their 27th wedding anniversary, plus to break the dreaded news that he doesn’t want to be a farmer like his dad.

Not too far away geographically, but very far away in every other respect, lives Ben Toroa, 16 years old, survivor of an abortion attempt, living in poverty and chaos with his younger siblings, under the care of his mother who is a punching bag for her latest partner. Unlike Jack, for Ben there is no hope, little education or skill set for adult life, no order or structure, no love. Belonging to a gang, and proving yourself to that gang are the major sources of self-esteem, belonging and making it in this world.

It is on the night of Carla and Keith’s wedding anniversary dinner that these two widely opposing worlds collide in the most brutal of circumstances, leaving one person dead, and another who may as well be. Carla is faced with her world, everything she has known, loved, and given herself to completely destroyed; Ben is facing a life in prison. What follows unfolds over eight or nine years, as both Carla and Ben deal with the enormous fall out of this arbitrary act of violence. The process, as you can imagine, is fraught. For both of them.

Carla is overwhelmed by grief, anger, hopelessness, fear, loss. Ben, only 16 we must remember, is also overwhelmed by the violence in his prison world, the impact on his mental health, the hopelessness of his situation. The one thing, however, deep inside his memory that might, just might offer the slenderest of hopes for him, is that he does remember a mother who once loved him, when he was very small, before the endless cycle of pregnancy, poverty and punching bag took over.

And yet, in small baby steps, some forward and some back, both Carla and Ben rediscover life, a purpose for living, make connections, and begin to find a way forward. One would think this would be easier for Carla living outside the physical confines of a prison, but it is actually Ben who grows the most, finding within the close confines of the prison system the basic human needs of love, respect and in turn self respect that enable him to create a life of value and meaning.

This novel has been some years in the making. A number of rural home invasions in New Zealand in the 1990s were the catalyst for Fiona Sussman’s immersion into the violent world of youth offending, gang initiations, prison life, childhoods of deprivation, violence and dysfunction. She spent time visiting prisons, meeting with prisoners, speaking with police, victim impact organisations, It must have been very confronting for her to spend time in the underbelly of our society, an underbelly that the vast majority of us do not want to know about or ever had any exposure to. It is easy for most of those who read this novel to identify with Carla and her grief, but not so easy to begin to have any understanding of the world that Ben comes from.

Once Were Warriors by Alan Duff was very confrontational for many people, lifting a veil from what most of us either chose not to see, or simply did not think existed. This novel takes us deeper into the violent and despairing life of many Maori in this country, essentially a result of colonisation by the British in the 1800s, forfeiture of land, and breakdown of traditional mores, cultural and family bonds. It is not a novel written in anger, but there is a certain despair and powerlessness that has allowed such a deprived strata of society to develop. Fiona Sussman digs deep into the essence of the wounded and damaged themselves, in this case Carla and Ben. Time may not heal, but it certainly dulls and softens the pain, suffering and despair, our natural healing processes allowing for hope and optimism to enter and begin to work their magic.

This really is a remarkable book, I cannot praise it enough. It touched something deep inside me. As a 6th generation New Zealander, who has had a very comfortable and easy ride in this country, I am ashamed that at the same time my predecessors have done well in this country, there are many who have not. The author is a new citizen of this country, and yet she has such insight and compassion into such a big issue. New Zealand is of course not the only British colony to have its indigenous population decimated, the author’s own country of South Africa with its more turbulent and disturbing history. But New Zealand is her country now too, and she has done what good writers do – educate and inform, open our eyes, show us a different way of looking at things and ourselves. Transport us. Read this, be humbled and see how we can all make a difference.

Reviewed by Felicity Murray

The Last Time We Spoke
by Fiona Sussman
Published by Allison & Busby
ISBN 9780749020262

Book Review: Shifting Colours, by Fiona Sussman

Available in bookstores nationwide

I remember as a university student in the early 1980s, cv_shifting_coloursfresh out of a sheltered existence at my high school, being confronted almost head-on with The World as seen through the eyes of the university student newspaper. Apart from the usual gripes that students had towards the tertiary education policy of the day, the overwhelming memory I have of those weekly student newspapers is the ongoing coverage of the violence and injustice of life in South Africa. As a very naive 17-year-old, I literally felt my eyes and mind being saturated and filled up with far away happenings.

Reading this novel took me right back to how I felt when I read those student rags, with their vivid and emotional reporting, engaging peoples’ physical and emotional pain, the little control they have over the path their lives take, and how hope and human kindness can still be found in the most unexpected places. It is a fabulous story, carefully and sparingly written, not too emotionally awful, but enough to make one ache for the characters and how little they are able to change their condition.

Opening in 1959, in Johannesburg, six year old Miriam lives with her mother Celia who is the maid for an English couple, Ria and Michael. Life is tough for Celia, although Miriam, being a child much loved by her mother, knows no different. The continuing unrest in South Africa leads to Celia’s employers returning to England, and giving Celia a terrible choice − they wish to adopt Miriam and give her the life that she could never have in Johannesburg. It breaks Celia’s heart, and Miriam all-too-suddenly finds herself living in Norwich.

The book then alternates Celia and Miriam narrating their stories as the years pass. Both suffer in their respective environments. Celia has trouble finding and retaining work, she has three older children and has to provide for them as well, black unrest continues unabated and Celia finds herself caught in the crossfire. Meanwhile in Norwich, where black people in the 1960s are almost unheard of, Miriam also has a terrible time. Unable to adjust in any way to life in England or to her new ‘family’, she is a most unhappy girl. An accidental meeting with an Indian girl and her family is the one bright thing in her life, and also becomes her anchor in the years to come.

Eventually Miriam, as an adult in the mid-1980s, finally realising that she needs to attend to the unfinished business of her early life in South Africa, makes the journey back to find where she came from. This perhaps was the most interesting part of the whole book. For here we have a black woman, well educated, speaking with an English accent, with the same rights as all other people in the UK, suddenly finding herself a repressed person, a second class citizen, subject to random searching, violation, and with very few rights.

I met the author socially at a dinner. This book had just been accepted for publishing and all she would modestly say about it was that it was set in South Africa. Very evasive. I am quite blown away that this is what her book was all about, and that it has been written with such humanity, power and intensity. She is South African-born herself, and at university found herself drawn to the protest movement. Knowing that background now, it is hardly surprising she has written this book with injustice and identity as central themes.

Reviewed by Felicity Murray

Shifting Colours
by Fiona Sussman
Published by Alison & Busby
ISBN 9780749016128