Book Review: Meltwater, by Suzanne Ashmore

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_meltwater.jpgSuzanne 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

Meltwater
by Suzanne Ashmore
Published by Mary Egan Publishing
ISBN 9780473472313

Book Review: Necessary Secrets, by Greg McGee

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_necessary_secrets.jpgNew Zealand-born playwright and award-winning novelist Greg McGee delivers a powerful examination of life in his new novel Necessary Secrets.

The story follows Dennis Sparks (Den), recently diagnosed with dementia, and his three adult children as they navigate the joys and hardships of their seemingly individual – yet ultimately connected – lives. Each sibling is allocated a season in which their lives unfold and unravel. Starting from eldest son and meth addict Will, we then move to ‘guarding angel’ and social worker Ellie, and the narrative concludes with self-sustaining and soul-searching Stan.

McGee’s characters are bold and distinct, and he does not shy away from revealing their flaws. A line which comes from Den about his children early on in the novel captures the essence of their development: ‘[W]hatever we’ve become out in the world, we always come home to be what we were.’

Eldest son Will is snarky, cruel and materialistic. We assume this is an effect of his drug addiction and broken marriage. But, even in recovery, his chances to redeem himself turn out to be self-serving or corrupt, betraying not only his siblings, but the reader who can’t help but urge him to turn his life around.

Ellie, at first, appears to be a do-gooder – she volunteers, she fosters children in volatile situations, and she helps women escape brutal domestic violence. Yet she faces her own challenges too, and her good deeds end with cynicism. The charity she volunteers at turns out to be a corrupt commercial operation and she is constantly aware of the repetitive cycle of violence. She is afraid of bringing her own child into the world and confesses that killing all abusers would be an easier (and safer) solution than the uncertain process of the New Zealand courts.

Youngest sibling, Stan, who has lived ten years of his life in a self-sustaining community, finds himself unsatisfied and yearning for more. Although he’s always detested commercialism, he is lured back to the city by the opportunities that inherited money gives him in modern society.

McGee creates deep connections between the three siblings and the reader. We are constantly learning and being challenged by what we know as each sibling becomes more complicated and (sometimes disturbingly) real. Their lives speak to the dark desires of the human condition, to the constant lurk of mortality, as well as to the joys of growth, perseverance, and human connection.

What is most affecting in Necessary Secrets, and certainly what lingers most, are the scenes blended among the seasons. Den’s battle with his disease, as it takes his memories, judgement, and understanding, is distressing. From seeing his care home as a “strange” hotel, to forgetting names, faces, and how to use cutlery, McGee captures Den’s desperation and confusion in his hauntingly simple prose. Den’s perspectives don’t exist in periods of time like his children’s, because he no longer has any determination of it. They float between the seasons, detached but heavy with fear – a fear no longer of his own mortality, but for losing his sense of self and home.

Necessary Secrets is an intimate yet stark story which focuses on societal issues that New Zealanders face every day, and it handles them with upfront honesty. It is a beautiful yet hard-hitting novel.

Reviewed by Susanna Elliffe

Necessary Secrets
by Greg McGee
Published by Upstart Press
ISBN 9781988516639

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