Book Review: Kaitiaki o te Po: Essays, by J. P. Powley

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_kaitiaki_o_te_po_essays.jpgThere is a very specific form of discomfit in reading this collection of essays. Particularly for a middle-aged man, growing up in particular urban culture, and still mired in the education system. Powley is a social studies teacher who really can write essays.

The essays vary in form and length, and some are written in the third person. But all weave together consistent themes of grief, bordering on despair, and the restless search for new ground (often overseas), while exploring colonial New Zealand history. This involves going with his class to Opotiki, to learn about Rev. Volkner’s ghastly death and its local context; as well as a deconstruction of Anzac Day myths.

The title of the book is also that of the first essay, which sets the scene in many ways, both personally and culturally. The grief is for mostly men, first a friend named Matt who dies of natural causes in London. Along the way there are elegies for students who have committed suicide. And by the end we reach into the grief for his father, who died relatively young, and was never replaced as a parent. It is Powley senior that appears on the book’s cover, looking out over a braided river, on a bridge built in 1963. This isn’t made clear in the book, even if he remains a kind of presence within.

A lot of the content involves the teacher talking out of school, rather literally. This seems to be alright if the names are changed, and the schools are unnamed, but some of the language is unfortunate. The key one is titled ‘The March of Progress’, and is something of a masterpiece, if you can cope with the younger protagonists dying, and Powley’s guilt as a Dean, at leaving the particular school prematurely. The weave of historical context, based in the Wellington suburb of Berhampore, and the Japanese experience, both in a school trip and his own feeling for the culture, is rather brilliant.

Powley’s longer essays are written in numbered sections, and this allows jump cuts to other themes. In ‘Time Never Cares’ one of the sections is simply a quote, and the many references to other writers does not necessarily add to the elegy. Also, the fourth and seventh sections begin with the same paragraph, word for word, about a photograph of the young John-Paul and his mother in an awkward first day of school pose. He understands the first day nerves better, perhaps, than the distaff side of his family.

For me, the essay titled ‘Pastoral Scene’ is problematic. He seems to actually refer to the concept of ‘pastoral care’, as described in an opening quote from Judith Collins (Powley likes to quote from correspondence with National Party cabinet ministers). This revolves around his work as a Dean at the earlier school and a time capsule which is opened as the cohort leaves that school. He includes sections of dialogue with recalcitrant students, usually of Māori heritage. An analogy is introduced based on the writing of Eric Blair (George Orwell), and his shooting of an elephant while working as a colonial administrator in India, who had to be seen to please the natives. The theme seems to be the difficulty of disciplining children who are already a lost cause.

I’m reminded of an incident at my high school, when a social studies teacher was assaulted in class, but chose not to take any action. He left teaching and went on to be big in the financial world.

Powley’s last two essays concern the walk-out of the classroom by his late father, the suicide of rock icon Chris Cornell, and the taking anti-depressants. These stories descend into swearing and self pity without resolution.

Reviewed by Simon Boyce

Kaitiaki o te Pō: Essays
by J. P. Powley
Published by Seraph Press
ISBN 9780994134592

Book Review: Swim, by Avi Duckor-Jones

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_swim_aviWinner of the 2018 Viva La Novella Prize, Avi Duckor-Jones’s Swim is an intimate and affecting story of a young man and his search for resolution.

Jacob is a long-distance swimmer, a traveller, and a free spirit. After receiving a letter from his estranged mother, he returns home to a small coastal town in New Zealand. While reuniting with friends and family from his past, Jacob begins renovating his father’s old shack. However, returning to the place where he grew up means Jacob is forced to face memories over his father’s suicide and mother’s abandonment. It is only when he discovers an island, far out to sea, that Jacob sees a chance for resolution. In a single-minded pursuit, Jacob makes plans to swim to the island, but as his obsession for reaching the unreachable builds, his real-world relationships begin to crumble.

At its core, Swim is a story of reconciliation – but not the kind one may expect. Though the premise hints at reconciliation between Jacob and his estranged mother, it is Jacob’s attempt to reunite his past and present self that becomes the true focus of the novella. Throughout the narrative, Jacob experiences a fusion of his past memories and present experiences as he returns to the hometown where he grew up. There is constant oscillation between what Jacob sees and what he remembers and this pushes him to come to terms with what he was, what he is now.

Duckor-Jones does not write this ‘coming of age’ as a passive transition. Swim shows Jacob in a constant struggle with adulthood – as the sea resists him, he resists against his own growth. This is shown through Henry, Jacob’s adopted brother, who has a new role and responsibility as a husband and father. Images of Henry as an adult run parallel to Jacob’s memories of them as young and carefree boys, and forces Jacob to reflect on his own life direction. However, because he isn’t in a ‘traditional’ role, Jacob cannot see that he too has been changing and evolving. Instead, he sees adulthood as a falsehood – ‘This is what we had all been practicing for. To imitate what we had seen as we grew up. But I hadn’t received the correct instructions. It was as if I had missed some steps, slipped, and fallen down the stairs while everyone kept on climbing.’

The theme of change – and accepting it – is a strong undercurrent through the story, as is the idea that one cannot swim away from it. Jacob’s mother, Estela, refuses to accept she is sick, and refuses to believe Jacob’s father took his own life. Though this frustrates Jacob, he fails to see that denial is her form of escapism, as swimming is for him. This is one of the moving character parallels Duckor-Jones blends gently into the narrative. It is this and flaws (like Estela’s constant ‘versioning’ of herself) that makes his characters so human.

Duckor-Jones’s writing is lyrical but harsh, poetic but desensitised, and in that he captures Jacob’s internal confusion and restlessness. The most breathtaking aspect of Swim is the natural symbolism – the injured birds and seal pups, fields of deceptive gorse, his Fathers overrun shack, and a ‘patient’ but untameable sea. Duckor-Jones not only creates sensual and striking scenes, but ties nature to Jacob’s memories, to the people around him, and to his very being.

With an exploration of the inner self that harks back to modernist literature, and a focus on nature and existence which feels jarringly romantic, Swim is literary fiction at its finest. This is a novella that requires time and thought to digest and, though the story may not leave you feeling resolved, it will certainly be one to remember every time you look at the sea.

Reviewed by Susanna Elliffe

Swim
by Avi Duckor-Jones
Published by Brio Books
ISBN 9781925589504

Book Review: Ocean of Milk, by Belinda Acyrigg

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cv_ocean_of_milk.jpgWaking up in hospital, all memory erased like a computer restored to factory settings, Amalia enters a bizarre world where nothing is normal, and everything is experienced as if for the first time.

Assured by doctors her memory will return she goes home with her husband and two children, Sammie and Mattie, and with support from her parents tries to get on with her life.

But she struggles to find her way back into their lives, causing stress and chaos for everyone. A world of fantasy and magic enables Amalia to cope with daily living and of course her children find living in a fantasy world more exciting.

‘Sammie jumps off my lap purposefully and trots off to get some books, just like on that first day so many moons ago. “This is how we do it,” he tells me, getting on my knee and pretending it’s a horse, while we read the books. He opens the first page. Where does the horse live? We always used to do this apparently, before school, kindy and all those interferences came along. I wish I could remember.’

Ocean of Milk is the first novel written by Auckland based Belinda Aycrigg where she is involved at the Auckland Hare Krishna school at a leadership level, having lived in a Hare Krishna temple and subscribed to the Vaisnava philosophy since then.

Aycrigg says ‘People often associate Hare Krishnas with tambourines and robes and struggle to get past that image to the deeper philosophy behind it, which is so totally opposed to the current prevailing paradigm of materialistic acquisition’.

She says she has tried to portray that in the novel but believes Amalia spends most of her time in search of herself and being pressured to conform by different worldviews she encounters.

I found it an interesting but challenging read as the fantasy takes the characters to a very high intense level far away from modern living. There are some fascinating aspects to the story with Amalia and her husband unconventionally parenting two boys with quirky personalities.

The cover design is absolutely fitting to the spellbinding journey the reader is about to encounter and Aycrigg’s crisp writing style and use of short sentences keeps up the intensity of the plot. ‘I hesitate. I’m not sure what she means. Is this about getting back some semblance of normality? Might running out of the room be a false move?’

A great summer read it will appeal to anyone who is searching to find a fulfilling pathway in today’s world and I hope we see more writing from Belinda Aycrigg.

Reviewed by Lesley McIntosh

Ocean of Milk
by Belinda Aycrigg
Published by 99% Press
ISBN 9780473404192

 

Book review: The Kingfisher’s Debt, by Kura Carpenter

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cv_the_kingfishers_debtTamsin Fairchild, thought to be a physic by local police, is called in to assist when the body of a baby is found at the Forsyth Bar Stadium in Dunedin. She teams up with Officer Scott Gale to examine the bizarre crime scene and they wonder is it a satanic ritual or hoax?

‘There wasn’t a spell painted on the body …..And there was no sacrifice. The baby was already dead, a preserved medical specimen.’

Kura Carpenter’s novel The Kingfisher’s Debt, unravels two storylines as it moves from the present day crime and another mystery disappearance during the summer twelve years ago.

The story weaves through layers, starting with alternating chapters of past and present running in parallel, with the reader learning about the Fair Folk of Dunedin, their Elemental rivals and their darkly exciting half  hidden world.

Reading The Kingfisher’s Debt took me on a wild romp around Dunedin to many places I have been to, but after reading this Urban Fantasy I will look and think differently about these familiar places.

Carpenter’s crisp descriptive writing is delightful and I could mentally picture many places she includes in the novel. ‘Their vivid dark blooms a tangle of untrimmed canes. The state of the roses, like the cars filling every space along Pitt Street, indicated this neighbourhood was primarily rental properties.’ The cover of the book is stunning and inviting, with appropriate photos cleverly aligned in the kingfisher photo.

I enjoy a good thriller / mystery but this book is unlike what I normally read, with fantasy elements skillfully interwoven throughout, adding more intrigue and mystery to the plot, and keeping me guessing to the end. The ending was strong but I am hoping the Dunedin based author will write a sequel to The Kingfisher’s Debt, so we can get a chance to learn more about these characters and the Power of the Solstice.

Reviewed by Lesley McIntosh

The Kingfisher’s Debt
by Kura Carpenter
Published by IFWG Publishing
ISBN 9780994522924

Book Review: The New Ships, by Kate Duignan

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cv_the_new_shipsThis book is just superb. Kate Duignan’s The New Ships is a novel set mostly in Wellington about Peter Collie, whose wife Moira has just died, and his relationship with their son Aaron. Aaron is biologically Moira’s but not Peter’s, although the two of them have raised him since birth. A lot of the book is told in flashback, and we learn that Peter’s daughter from a previous relationship may or may not have died as a toddler. Part of the reason we don’t know is because Peter has chosen not to investigate. It’s a pretty huge thing to be uncertain about.

There are a lot of huge uncertainties in this novel, and I suspect it’s not a coincidence that the ‘present’ of the book is set in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. Peter and Moira are white but Aaron’s unknown birth father was a man of colour, and Aaron’s ethnic identity is another source of uncertainty that troubles Peter. Moira says he was conceived in Australia – might he be Aboriginal? As a child Aaron befriends some Māori and Pasifika kids and declares his ‘real’ dad is Rarotongan. When Aaron boards a plane for London after Moira’s funeral but doesn’t arrive there, Peter starts to panic. Airport security and Islamophobia are peaking, and Aaron is ethnically ambiguous enough to be mistaken for an Arab and labelled a terrorist.

One of the things I really like about The New Ships is that it’s easy to read and also full: of ideas, of story layers, of exceptional writing. Here are a few sentences that I particularly loved: when describing a sailor Peter admires: ‘I’d trust this man to put down a dog I was fond of.’ At the tail end of a family holiday when Peter just wants to go home: ‘I was sick of … sitting like a damp, agitated ghoul at my wife’s side.’ When Peter is facing his first Christmas after Moira’s death: ‘It’s intolerable, summer ahead, all the days fat with beauty, useless.’

Peter is a flawed protagonist. We are in his head the whole way through the book so our sympathies naturally flow towards him, but there’s no denying he’s done some pretty dodgy stuff. Why doesn’t he lift a finger to find out for sure whether his daughter is alive or dead? There’s also a very uncomfortable narrative thread wherein Peter, who is middle-aged and a partner at his law firm, sifts onto a young, attractive female intern while trying to convince himself that he’s “helping” her. I found his behaviour distressing, especially in light of the real-life stories about the way female law interns are treated here.

Duignan resolves some of the uncertainties in The New Ships but not all of them, giving the reader a pleasing sense of narrative satisfaction without anything feeling pat or contrived. I highly recommend The New Ships to lovers of NZ fiction and of good books in general.

Review by Elizabeth Heritage

The New Ships
by Kate Duignan
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776561889

Book Review: Rotoroa, by Amy Head

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cv_rotoroa.jpgChristchurch author Amy Head’s first novel Rotoroa is a masterclass in the minutely beautiful.

Following characters seeking ‘fresh starts’, Rotoroa weaves together three disparate narratives: naïve young Lorna, who, at 15, finds herself pregnant and turning to religion for comfort; Jim, an alcoholic husband and father who is sent to Rotoroa after failing to keep his drinking in check; and Katherine Morton, known more famously as the novelist and journalist Elsie K. Morton, who is contracted to write about the work of the Salvation Army on Rotoroa Island, the rehabilitation island for alcoholic men. Ensnared within the societal and religious binds that guide 1950s society, Lorna, Jim and Katherine each embark on an emotional (and sometimes physical) journey to define new lives for themselves while struggling within their typecast roles as daughter, alcoholic and ‘Lady Writer’.

Although it is explicitly a story about men, Rotoroa is implicitly a story about the steadfast women working behind the scenes – women who, were it not for pioneering journalists like Katherine Morton – may have been lost to the depths of history.

Spanning the years 1955–1959, the ease with which the social and historical realism bleed into the fictional narrative is a testament to the wealth of research that Head undertook in its writing. The non-fiction details are imparted through the narrative with a subtle and striking intelligence that is compelling in its pervasive emotional power.

The micro-level beauty of the prose is in its discreet attention to detail. In a Mansfield-esque manner, Head is master of the understated emotional epiphany. Interlacing not only three distinct narratives but also a non-linear time structure, each individual chapter reads like a self-contained short story. With sharp and often poignant beginning and end sentences, each chapter builds to the point of a subtle emotional revelation – so subtle, that every sentence demands to be read. Jim’s short, staccato-like chapters (which reach a pinnacle in a beautiful chapter where he goes fishing ‘at the sharp edge of the reef’) are balanced by Katherine’s longer mellow interludes as we journey with her on her final travel lecture throughout the USA and back home again – viewing 1950s New Zealand society from both the outside and in. Lorna’s story flows between and connects the two, at once enthralling and devastating in its unflinching emotional honesty.

Not to be confused with the geothermal city or lake of a similar name, Rotoroa Island lies to the east of Waiheke Island in the Hauraki Gulf. Opening with the statement ‘[w]here you lived was important’, the people and place of Rotoroa are intrinsically linked. ‘Both idyll and institution, from its clay-baked cliffs to the whitewashed stones’, the island of Rotoroa develops into a tempestuous yet striking character in its own right. Its isolation is reflected by the internal isolation of Lorna, Jim and Katherine, and we view the island variously with each switch of viewpoint – it is both ‘a nobody-cares island’ and a ‘sanctuary from earthly troubles’.

With a pressure that builds not to startle but to illuminate, Rotoroa crescendos to a depth of emotion rather than to a climactic height. It conceals more than it reveals, leaving the reader to unravel the unsaid, but the rewards are huge – the raw emotional power of Rotoroa lingers long after the novel is over. Highly recommended.

Reviewed by Rosalie Elliffe

Rotoroa
by Amy Head
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776561919

Book Review: A Sister in my House, by Linda Olsson

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cv_a_sister_in_my_house.jpgMaria has found sanctuary in a rented house, overlooking a small Spanish village by the sea. She is coming to terms with losing the love of her life. But her solitude and places that have become special to her are about to be encroached on by the arrival of her younger sister, Emma.

It is two years since Maria issued the invitation to her younger sister following their mother’s funeral and she is unsure if it was such a good idea. ‘Now, as I tried to think back and understand why I had blurted out the invitation, I reluctantly had to acknowledge that I might have been driven by a wish to show off. To flaunt my new life. Strut my happiness.’

The inclusion of a verse by Emily Dickinson at the beginning of the book was the inspiration the title of the novel and gives us a clue about what might be revealed in the book.

One Sister have I in our house-
And one, a hedge away.
There’s only one recorded,
But both belong to me.

It is not a long book (just 119 pages) but the author gently explores the sisters’ thoughts and feelings about their childhood and the adults they have become.

‘Why? Your father adored you. You were his little princess.’
Emma’s response took a long while.
‘I don’t really know what my father felt for me. I have no memories of us doing anything much together.’

The novel is divided into six chapters, one for each day of Emma’s stay, during which the author Linda Olsson explores the relationships over forty years, between the sisters, mother and their fathers.

Linda Olsson  has written a number of novels, her first, Let me Sing you Gentle Songs, was published in 2005 and became an international success. I had read the more recent The Blackbird Sings at Dusk (2016) and enjoyed it.

Olsson did not disappoint, her elegant style and attention to detail was again evident in this work, as the small steps in the sisters’ lives helped them to move into the future. The stunning cover invites the reader in. Anyone who enjoys a book about family relationships will find this a rewarding read.

Reviewed By Lesley McIntosh

A Sister in My House
by Linda Olsson
Published by Penguin Books
ISBN 9780143770763