Book Review: The Families, by Vincent O’Sullivan


Available now in bookstores nationwide. 

Vincent O’Sullivan is the current New Zealand poet laureate. He is a Distinguished Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit, a recipient of the Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement, and has twice won the Montana New Zealand Book Award for Poetry. It is impossible, therefore, to come to his latest collection of short stories, The Families, without expectations.

There are fourteen stories in The Families, and the title story is ninth. By the time I reached it I found myself skipping sentences and paragraphs, trying not to feel weighed down by the density of the prose. Perhaps I didn’t give myself enough time? But I’d just come from reading Gemma Bowker-Wright’s collection The Red Queen where it sometimes feels like an entire life can be captured in a few well-chosen words.

O’Sullivan’s stories have depth, there’s no doubt about that, but the writing is not as I’d expected. Take this, from ‘Mrs Bennett and the Bears’, “She raised her hand to hush the women at the table behind her, on the other side of the two bottles and the plates with their scattered shells.” Or this, from ‘Keeping an Eye’, “Lexy caught her brother’s eye and puckered her forehead, her signalling to watch it, bro, as she had begun saying recently, an expression that irritated her mother. Mum, as the twins well knew, had a shorter fuse than Dad.”

O’Sullivan draws the reader in but too often I found myself impatiently hurrying through long sentences and paragraphs, trying to get to the substance of each story. They traverse the full range of themes confronting families – an elderly parent in a nursing home, troubled children returning home as troubled adults, the revelation of a past affair, a family coming together after the death of a parent. Perhaps the strongest, for me, were those that did not dwell on old age, like ‘Luce’, the simply told account of a young boy sent away to relatives in the South Island after his father commits a crime, and ‘On Another Note’, previously published in Second Violins, a collection based on and inspired by Katherine Mansfield’s stories.

I asked my friends what they thought of the book. They looked at each other first before offering comments like ‘thoughtful,’ and ‘gentle,’ then quickly moving on to agree the cover design was ‘awful.’ The cover shows a slightly coarse line drawing of a stork’s nest, the out-of-sight adult’s long bill reaching down to feed three hungry chicks.

I wanted to like The Families more than I did. I knew these were important, relevant, meaningful stories by one of our most accomplished writers. But as I ploughed through sentences and paragraphs full of details, sometimes struggling to work out whose point of view the story had shifted to, I tired of them quickly.

Perhaps I will come back to this collection, spend more time with it, make more of an effort to get to know the characters, dwell on the details. Perhaps as I age I will see more of the truths that O’Sullivan has undoubtedly set out, and perhaps I will care more about the people he writes about. But, for now, I’d rather read Alice Munro’s ‘Runaway’ or Gemma Bowker-Wright’s ‘Katherine’, where a single sentence can hit you so hard you have to put the book down, unable to breathe.

Reviewed by C P Howe

The Families
by Vincent O’Sullivan
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN 9780864739193

Book Review: The Red Queen, by Gemma Bowker-Wright

This book is available now in bookstores nationwide. 

This collection of short stories is the first book for Gemma Bowker-Wright.cv_the_red_queen

She’s a good writer; the stories are well crafted, with a quirky humour apparent in even some of the bleaker works. I read the book almost at one sitting, and some of the stories stayed with me for quite some time. That’s unusual for me. I found myself going back to make sure I was remembering correctly.

There is a great depth to some of the stories – and a feeling of immense generosity of spirit, but then again of sadness in some of them also. This may be what I took from them, rather than an intention on the part of the writer. Two which typify these feelings are ‘Cowboy’ and ‘Katherine’.

‘Cowboy’ is in essence a story about a father and son, long separated. Father from time to time remembers he actually has a son, and arranges something which generally suits his purpose rather than that of his child. But despite this, the story ends on a positive note and I found that a huge surprise, not at all what I expected.

‘Katherine’, in the story which ends the book, has Alzheimers. The picture drawn in this story is very well-done – the apparent normality of many days, and the total irrationality of others points out the awfulness of the illness and the difficulty inherent in managing anyone who is a sufferer. Gemma Bowker-Wright manages to bring the characters of Katherine and her husband to life most effectively and with poignancy.

I found this, overall, to be a really good collection of stories, with a very New Zealand flavour. I look forward to more work from this young author.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

The Red Queen
by Gemma Bowker-Wright
VUP 2014
ISBN 9780864739209