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

Available in bookshops nationwide.

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: Patched: The History of Gangs in New Zealand, by Jarrod Gilbert

This book is available in bookstores now, and is a finalist in the General Non-fiction category of the New Zealand Post Book Awards.

“I have frequently been asked if I am worried that this book cv_patchedmay upset people—primarily gang members,” writes Jarrod Gilbert in the Preface to his book Patched: The History of Gangs in New Zealand. “While obviously I hope it does not, I am unconcerned by offending gang members, members of the police, or politicians. What I am concerned with is the truth.” It is this uncompromising commitment to the truth which makes Patched such an excellent book.

In Patched, Gilbert unfolds the history of gangs in New Zealand, starting from the 1950s with its incipient gangs of ‘milk bar cowboys’ influenced by Hunter S. Thompson and rock ‘n’ roll, and unfurling his history out to today’s urban streets, with LA-style street gangbangers wearing bling. Gilbert hangs his history on four ‘pivot points’—developments or events that, in one way or another, caused the gang landscape to seismically shift into a new configuration, and the demarcation of these pivot points helps the reader keep track of Gilbert’s complex subject.  Gilbert is also careful to place each development in gang history within its specific historical, social and economic context—to the point that it’s possible to read Patched not merely as a history of New Zealand gangs, but rather as a history of New Zealand, as seen through the prism of gangs.

A sociologist by trade, Gilbert chose to study New Zealand gangs for his PhD thesis, and it is on this thesis that Patched is based. But Patched is by no means a dry academic treatise. In fact, despite all the statistics, official statements, interviews, and footnotes (all of which stand testament to the immense amount of work Gilbert clearly had to do), Patched remains a lean, mean read, that whisks you along this gang history in a completely unputdownable way.

But what really impresses, over and above the depth of Gilbert’s research and his obvious ability to write, is, as I said before, Gilbert’s steadfast search for the truth. Gilbert obviously went into researching this topic with his BS detector on high alert, since there isn’t a single statement made by gang members, police or (especially) politicians that Gilbert hasn’t turned over, scrutinised and gnawed, like a dog with a bone, until it has proven itself to be true. That attitude gives Patched a sense of hard-won rigour that is striking.

It is easy to conceive of police and politicians decrying Patched as being biased towards gangs (especially since Gilbert spent eight years doing ethnographic research with various gangs, immersing himself in the gang scene). But to Gilbert’s credit, it doesn’t seem like Gilbert wants to shut out views that clash with his own. Instead it seems clear that Patched is intended to ignite debate, not firebomb dissenters. And, equally clearly, that debate is needed, now. If nothing else, Patched shows the urgency with which social problems that lead to gang formation, like entrenched unemployment and poverty, must be addressed. Patched is excellent for its readability and its hard-nosed search for the truth, but it becomes outstanding because Gilbert’s findings are necessary. For these reasons, Patched may well become a landmark work of New Zealand non-fiction.

Reviewed by Feby Idrus

Patched: The History of Gangs in New Zealand
By Jarrod Gilbert
Auckland University Press
ISBN 9781869407292