Book Review: Felt Intensity, by Keith Westwater

Available in selected bookshops nationwide.

cv_felt_intensityFrom the start of Felt Intensity, Keith Westwater creates a strange and haunting image as he places the all-too-human thoughts of ‘February 22, 2011, Report 1’ in front of the scientific abstraction of ‘February 22, 2011, Report 2.’

In ‘Report 1’ we are told that During that afternoon of terra not-so-firma / we stood around, shivered, hugged the ground / solaced those from the third floor / whose sky had fallen on their heads. Juxtaposing this with the data of ‘Report 2’ feels like a strange wrenching away from the personal experience of the event, until in the last line we are told Widely felt in Canterbury. This line brings the poem back into a relatable atmosphere, where the abstract statistics merge with the intense feelings created by the event.

This mixing of the personal and the more public or abstract thought continues in ‘Condensed Modified Mercalli Scale,’ where the numbers that are used to measure the felt intensity of an earthquake are quantified by descriptions of people and the environment. VI – IX Many frightened and run outdoors / Some chimneys broken / Noticed by persons driving motorcars. We see an intersection of two distinct modes of thought about the earthquakes, one of personal experience, from the people who were directly affected by the event. Next to this we see a more distant experience, seen through the lens of science and public reporting (‘Headlines’), the experience of the people who were not there, but still felt the impact of the event. Westwater expertly merges these two different spheres into a shared experience with these poems, evoking what could be called a ‘New Zealand’ experience.

In the second section of the collection, Westwater moves in a slightly different direction, reflecting on a different sort of fault in society. In ‘Today, there are twenty-three’ he outlines the meeting of high-fashion and style, Versace, Gucci, / and Swarovski sup with / the Saatchi brothers, and the political fallouts, politicians will make / the brothers even richer. This picture of the well-off is contrasted with a different sort of picture sitting in the same space. On Golden Mile / beggars squat. / Today, there are twenty-three / between Manners Street / and Parliament. Westwater continues to create stark contrasts, but unlike the earthquakes that brought people together, here there is a clear divide between one group and the other.

And it is these differences, sometimes reconciled, at other times continuing to run in parallel, never to fully meet, that draws one into Felt Intensity. At other times it is a calm that engages, a personal story that slows everything down and moves away from the intensity of the scientific and political. But these don’t hold a candle / to the stories told me then / of angels tending / flocks of fireflies / across the fields of heaven.

A fine balance is struck by Keith Westwater, and different worlds mix together to create a pleasant experience.

Reviewed by Matthias Metzler

Felt Intensity
by Keith Westwater
Published by Submarine (Makaro Press)
ISBN 9780994129918

Book Review: King Rich, by Joe Bennett

Available in bookshops nationwide.

Tcv_king_richhree small things have occurred in the past two weeks to bring Christchurch to the front of my thinking. Firstly, this week saw my first visit to Christchurch since the tragic earthquakes of 2010 and 2011. To be honest, although I have not had any need to go to Christchurch, I certainly have not gone out of my way to find a reason to go. Very simply, I have not wanted to see how this city that I have visited many times over the years, has been so destroyed both physically and emotionally. But a holiday on the West Coast required going through Christchurch to get there, and an overnight stay with friends who offered to take us on a tour of the city was far too good to turn down. Secondly, the latest North and South magazine has a very sobering article on the very slow progress being made in those five years to fix homes and businesses damaged/destroyed, with massive fingers pointing at both the insurance industry and the government. And lastly, I read this wonderful novel set in the days after the 2011 earthquake. What a gem.

This is the first work of fiction by well-known NZ writer and columnist Joe Bennett, who has lived in the Christchurch area for many years. His novel asks what would have happened to someone who actually managed to remain inside the cordoned off CBD disaster zone, living in the condemned multi-story hotel which also happened to be the tallest building in the city? For Richard, in his early sixties, life in recent years has taken a bad turn. Sick, probably malnourished, basically homeless, and an alcoholic to boot, the haven he finds in the deserted and leaning hotel, is really the only place he wants to be. Just think of all those mini bars! With no one to love, and no one to love him other than an abandoned dog which also finds its way into the building, Richard has little to live for. On the other side of the world in London, his daughter Annie, who has spent her whole life wondering what happened to her adored father after he left her and her mother, sees on TV the devastation wrought on her home town, and makes the long journey back to Christchurch to see if she can find him and maybe re-find herself.

It’s a simple story of love and hope, the kindness of others, the simple pleasures in life, set against a background of such devastation, loss and despair. Could it only be written by someone who has lived through all this themselves? Well, in this case, I think yes. Because the book absolutely sparkles with what Christchurch is all about. The writer captures the essence of the landscape, the garden city, the old wooden architecture, the solidness of the place, the spirit, resilience and stoicism of the residents that was apparent to the rest of the country and the world in the days, weeks and now years after. Joe Bennett is a marvellous writer, so visual – ‘The starlings are gangsters in flashy suits, strutting like hit men on the far edge of the sill, their sword-beaks jabbing at each other in perpetual squabble.’ This is just one of many, many sentences that I loved. It’s such an entertainment to read, even though the subject matter is not.

Both Richard and Annie, as the main characters, are very real people. Despite their flaws, as the reader you can’t help but relate to them, empathy oozing over the page. Noted NZ writer Dame Fiona Kidman reviewed this book for The Spinoff, and her main criticism is how Annie’s mother/Richard’s ex-wife is portrayed, and I agree with her. It is a very simplistic and one-dimensional view of a woman who was betrayed early on in her marriage and left with a young child to raise. The reader is not supposed to like her, she does not behave well. However, taking into consideration the circumstances of her marriage breakdown, I do think she deserves some compassion and sympathy. Dare I say it, if the book had been written by a woman the wife may have come across as a nicer person, with at least one redeeming quality.

Besides this small criticism, Annie’s search for her father, the history she unearths, and the people she meets who knew her father in his younger and better days is really quite heart-warming. Disasters like this always produce small but beautiful real life stories, and the best thing about the story of King Rich and his daughter Annie, is that it could so easily be true. I hope there is more fiction to come from Joe Bennett!

Reviewed by Felicity Murray

King Rich
by Joe Bennett
Published by HarperCollins NZ
ISBN 9781775540557

Book Review: The Pale North, by Hamish Clayton

cv_the_pale_northAvailable in bookstores nationwide.

What an amazing piece of writing this book is. At times I found myself wondering if it was autobiography, memoir, history or pure invention. Which author is writing which part? Are they all Hamish Clayton or is he inventing everything, including his own persona?

Certainly this is a brilliant, complex and cleverly interwoven work. Ghosts and imagined events – or are they real people and real events? – abound. Each section of the novel makes reference to the other parts. Characters appear and reappear – or is this a clever conceit of the author to make us think we know what’s happening when truthfully, it’s all quite mysterious?

The first part of the book is a work of fiction, ‘The City of Lost Things’, set in a post-earthquake-devasted Wellington. The central character, Gabriel North, explores what is left, and weaves his memories into it.

The second part, ‘In Dark Arches’, begins thus:

Something happens in a forgotten corner of the world and then, years later in another corner, something else which seems random and unconnected. And yet a chain is made between them by chance; a pattern emerges and meaning is inferred.

This, to me, is the essence of the book’s creativity. The connections made in the various aspects of the story, apparently by chance, but really by the author’s design, make you stop to think, to re-read, to check that what you have just read really is what appeared earlier in the text. It’s simply fascinating.

I don’t like repeating myself, but this is a wonderful creation; inventive, twisted, mysterious but ultimately all linked together.

I am off to find Wulf and see if the first book by Hamish Clayton is as good as this one.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

The Pale North
by Hamish Clayton
Published by Penguin NZ
ISBN 9780143569268