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Suzanne Ashmore’s Meltwater is a fractured and deeply personal novel, accurately hailed as a powerful ‘homage to storytelling’. Meltwater depicts the abusive childhood of Elizabeth and the lingering effect of that trauma following her through life. However, the novel in no way follows traditional methods of storytelling. Elizabeth has thirteen different ‘selves’ created to bury and protect their host, Elizabeth, from memories of her abuse.
This creates a splintered telling of Elizabeth’s life, as she jumps from memory to memory – some detached, some inconsistent, some uncontrollable, others passionate. Ashmore herself describes Meltwater as ‘rhizomatic’ – something with no single beginning, “always in the middle, between things, inter-being.” This perfectly describes the fluid nature of the novel – there are loose ends which are not tied, there are people who move in and out of Elizabeth’s life, people who are not mentioned again. Ideas start and stop, they flourish and they die. The ebbs and flows with Elizabeth’s emotions, aches with her confusion and exhaustion as she loses pieces of her past.
Elizabeth’s thirteen ‘selves’, particularly the narrator of the story and the ‘secret keeper’ Beatrice, steal memories to protect her from her trauma. This leaves large gaps in Elizabeth’s sense of self, especially as she grows older and longs to remember. There is a constant and fatiguing struggle within Elizabeth and her parts that are “born out of chaos”. From headstrong Lydia who always says what’s on her mind, to flirtatious Jessica longing for someone to love, and to love her – they all ‘take control’ of Elizabeth when life gets to be too much.
This means Elizabeth is, at times, detached from herself and her life, unable to ground herself. As memories are uncovered and moments unfold, she is lost, both literally and in her mind. At times, the memories are blurred and full of echoes, other times they are clear, silent, or in slow-motion.
Though detached, the descriptions in Meltwater are visceral and moody – from the hanging “paper-thin” Southern Alps to the tears of Taranaki, Ashmore’s prose is beautifully constructed. She paints on the page through Elizabeth’s thoughts, much like the art she later goes on to create.
There will be times in Meltwater where you need to put the book down – where Elizabeth’s pain is overwhelming. That in itself is compliment to Ashmore’s powerful yet graceful style. Meltwater is chilling, haunting, but most of all it is a brave and triumphant journey of a woman freeing herself from her past.
Reviewed by Susanna Elliffe
by Suzanne Ashmore
Published by Mary Egan Publishing