Book Review: Women in the field, one and two, by Thomasin Sleigh

Available at selected bookshops nationwide. 

cv_women_in_the_field_one_and_twoWomen in the Field, One and Two, written by Thomasin Sleigh, felt like season one of a TV show. Each chapter held a problem to be overcome that all contributed to the main arc of the novel. I wanted more as soon as I shut the book.

The main character, Ruth, is engaging and relatable. She works as assistant keeper at the Fisher Gallery in London 70 years ago, where she is tasked with recommending acquisitions for New Zealand’s National Art Gallery. We follow Ruth’s trials with her co-workers at the gallery, excursions with her family, and interactions through the window with her neighbour across the street. At an exhibition one evening, Ruth is introduced to Irina Durova, a fictional Russian artist who is determined to show Ruth her work. After obliging Irina not once, but twice, by visiting her disorganised studio, Ruth recommends Irina’s ‘modern art’ to the National Art Gallery of New Zealand and sets in motion a chain of events leading up to her and Irina travelling with the exhibition all the way to Wellington.

The book begins weakly, with a somewhat stilted first chapter. It feels like a summary of events that brings us to the story, rather than immersing us in that story immediately. But once we are there, it is extremely compelling.

The novel has a unique perspective. The art world is intriguing, especially in that time. The clash of Ruth, a passionate and straightforward introvert, and Irina, a determined and excessively confident artist, is fascinating to watch unfold. What makes it even more appealing is the genuine sense of place that we receive of both London and Wellington. Images like ‘the weather was changeable, restless. A strong wind shunted clouds across the sky’ are so familiar that it feels like you are in Wellington in the 1950s having a cup of tea with Ruth.

The book deals with themes such as misogyny in the workplace and trying to settle in to your own place in the world, that are unfortunately still relevant today. Ruth constantly struggles to be able to fit in at work: ‘She wanted to scream, horrendously, viciously. Did these men only allow her to speak so they could pretend to listen to her, nodding patronisingly while her words, like flimsy paper darts, glanced off their impenetrable foreheads?’ Once in New Zealand, Ruth and Irina fight against the extreme colonialism and conservatism of the public, so different to the Wellington of today.

A small bonus was being able to identify exactly where in the book the cover design had originated!

The book’s editorial production feels rushed, and there are some proofreading errors. However, the story is engaging enough to be able to continue reading.

Women in the Field, One and Two has a strong story arc, relatable and likeable characters, and an interesting divide in setting between London and New Zealand. It is one of the most fascinating books by a New Zealand author that I have read.

Reviewed by Francesca Edwards

Women in the field, One and Two
by Thomasin Sleigh
Published by Lawrence & Gibson
ISBN 9780473442095

Book Review: Swim: A year of swimming outdoors in New Zealand , by Annette Lees

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_swim_a_year_of_swimming_outdoorsHave you ever thought to yourself that swimming all year round would be a good idea? Neither had I, until Annette Lees’s charming collection of diary entries, tales and interviews with swimmers persuaded me of the wonders it could work on your physical health, mental health and appreciation for New Zealand’s beauty.

Part diary, part non-fiction stories with a splash of science, Swim opens with a classic swimming-related pun (‘Diving in’) and tells the story of a normal woman, Annette Lees, who, almost accidentally, decides to swim every day for a year. It begins as a commitment to swim all summer and slowly extends until it becomes a year-long effort.

The book is divided into beautiful seasonal sections which helps break up the year’s records of swimming. Her daily swims are described in diary entry format, which I became surprisingly invested in as the book went on. They share details of the weather, the water, and snippets of conversation with people she meets. Some she even manages to convince to swim – ‘He grabs his girlfriend by the hand – ‘Let’s go for a swim,’ he yells.’ There are many places where I now want to swim, and one thing I would have loved to see is a map with the swims marked on.

Woven amongst these daily swims are collected stories: anything and everything to do with New Zealanders swimming. From competitive swimming to historical swims to government swim campaigns, these well-referenced stories offer insights into New Zealand’s incredible history with swimming. Interviews with swimmers from various backgrounds made swimming seem more accessible and left me in awe of the amazing things that New Zealanders do when they set their minds to it. Arno Marten, for example, describes his attempt to swim from Milford Sound 450 kilometres down to Te Waewae Bay. Swimming is far more ingrained in the New Zealand culture than I ever bothered to think about, but I am glad that Swim gave me a reason to do so.

Although initially a little hard to get in to, before long I was avidly awaiting the next adventurous tale. Lees has a deliciously dry and witty writing style, which I would just begin to miss before another comment proved that her humour had simply been waiting for the right moment to resurface. She has truly mastered the art of finishing with a bang: each story ends almost abruptly, in a way that adds to the story rather than completes it.

Swim is a beautiful book. Unfortunately, it was let down by its clear lack of thorough proofreading. It was hard to appreciate the beauty of the book as an object when I was overwhelmed by the number of obvious errors, especially in the middle third of the book.

Lees’s descriptions of swimming are glorious: ‘the sensuous feeling of water on the skin, or the giddy happiness, freedom and contentment that steals into the soul when bathing.’ Between the imagery, the fascinating stories and the personal accounts, any reader will truly be immersed in an appreciation of swimming.

Reviewed by Francesca Edwards

Swim
by Annette Lees
Published by Potton & Burton
ISBN 9780947503956