Book Review: The Bright Side of My Condition, by Charlotte Randall

The Bright Side of my Condition is a finalist in the Fiction category of the 2014 New Zealand Post Book Awards.cv_the_bright_side_of_my_condition

“Maybe next time I get it right.  Forget special.  Next time I come back as a whalefish breathing steady in the lovely deeps.”  So speaks Bloodworth, convict-narrator of Charlotte Randall’s The Bright Side of my Condition.  And Randall indeed seems to be grappling with just that − what is the point of our brief human lives?  When we eventually shuffle off this mortal coil, should we be remembered for, or remember ourselves as ‘special’, or should our successes instead be measured by the twin metric of beauty and enjoyment?  As Bloodworth muses, the penguins know:

… their useless stumpy wings that don’t fly, their duck feet that don’t walk, their bodies jes a starchy morning suit, but look how they contrive to free their selfs from their limits and enjoy their lives.

Look how they grin, he says.

Randall writes her first person narrative as the man of the time would speak.  The opening sections bloom with ‘I dint say a word’ and ‘I’m Bloodworth.  It aint a name I ever heared of before it were thrust upon me.’  This jars, to begin with.  But as the story progresses, it quickly becomes a an obviously strong narrative voice.  Bloodworth is hard to like, but he must have grown on me − the surreal change of form at the end of the book left me caring for his fate, and I was surprised by this.  He is not really a likeable character, but is richly imagined.  More importantly, his experience is an allegorical tale that explores issues of existentialism, freedom and choice. “And yer have to ask,” says Bloodworth, “… what even were I brung here for?  Jes to walk alone across these cliffs?”

the_snares

The Snares islands

In three parts, the novel addresses ‘The Early Years’, ‘The Middle Years’, and ‘Eternity’ of the experiences of four convicts who escaped from Norfolk Island onto a sealing ship. The ship did not have enough food to feed the crew and the convicts, and so they were discharged onto one of The Snares, a group of subantarctic islands 200 kilometres from the South Island of New Zealand. The collective area of these islands equate to 3.5 kilometres squared. If it sounds foreboding and harsh, it is. The experiences of the four men are of the environment, each other and the self, for that is all there really is. Seals are murdered for their skins, and these skins hid away and counted as a measure of time passing. Interactions between Bloodworth, Gargantua, Toper and Slangam are brutal and bitchy. Imagine being stuck on an inhospitable island with three other law-breakers; a sack of potatoes, rice and rum the only provisions; the promise of rescue at least a year away. There is little to hope for except rescue. At least in a prison, your sentence, you would presume, would end. Here, on the island, the reader already knows that rescue is actually a decade away. And then what?

Gargantua believes he will be delivered as a hero to the literary circles of England, and that the story he has to tell of the experience will define him as ‘special’. Toper seems a bit stupid − his religion and natural inclination to follow rather than lead make him a prime candidate for manipulation. Slangam sees himself as boss, and so it is. Bloodworth eventually sours of interaction and heads out alone to a cave, rejecting company for penguin and albatross watching, and internal philosophising. ‘The Early Years’ and ‘The Middle Years’ follow these internal and external journeys.

Wandering Albatross Kaikoura 19 Nov 12_990

Copyright Stephen Burch Kaikoura Pelagic, New Zealand, 19 November 2012 EOS 7D & 400mmf4DO. 1/5000 sec f5.6 ISO 800

It is in ‘Eternity’ that things dramatically diverge. We still have our narrator, but his situation changes. This is the smallest section of the book − 30 pages − but the most interesting as far as form goes. Randall has talked about how the ideas in this part of the story actually prompted her writing The Bright Side of my Condition. Things end as they start – the bickering and bitching continues – and the questioning of self and others goes on.

And what of Bloodworth? He continues to grapple with the exquisite pain of living. At one point he asks: “But were there more of a plan for me? … Were I made special for a special life?” Randall’s response comes through words that swell from Bloodworth’s pre-convict life: “Living do the making.” We are as we choose to live, so choose to live wisely.

by Lara Liesbeth

The Bright Side of My Condition
by Charlotte Randall
Published by Penguin Books NZ
ISBN 9780143570660

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Book Review: The Bright Side of my Condition, by Charlotte Randall

Available today in bookstores

What would you do if you were marooned? Even if youcv_the_bright_side_of_my_condition had the skills and resources to feed, shelter and clothe yourself, how would you stay sane? What is the difference between surviving and living?

Charlotte Randall’s latest novel, The Bright Side of my Condition, is a New Zealand Robinson Crusoe tale that takes a sharply intelligent look at these and other questions that cut to the heart of the human condition. Four men – nicknamed Bloodworth, Toper, Slangam and Gargantua – are left on a tiny sub-antarctic island by the captain of a sealing ship, who promises to pick them up in a year. We know from the foreword that he doesn’t, and that this is a matter of historical record: four escaped convicts really were deposited on one of the Snares Islands (pictured below) in the early nineteenth century, and really did survive there for many years.

Randall chooses to tell the tale in Bloodworth’s voice, using phonetic spelling and unconventional grammar: yair, wud, follered, heared, more nicer, them other two. It takes a bit of getting used to but it does work, bringing us inside the head of this man from another time and culture. Disinclined to give himself purpose through hard work, like Slangam, Bloodworth’s way of coping with his situation is to physically and emotionally distance himself from his fellows in order to observe and to think.

The drama and drive of the novel stem from Bloodworth’s psychological development, as he tries on different philosophies for size: immanence, predestination versus free will, meditation, the elimination of the self, scientific observation, escape from reality through hallucination, questioning god and the nature of hell, withdrawal from society: “‘Happy living things!’ I disdain him. ‘If yer went out there and looked, yer wud see killing and dying everywhere.’ ‘The world is beautiful,’ say Toper in a strangle tone. ‘So it is,’ I agree at once. ‘But living ain’t.’”

Finally, Bloodworth reaches thesnares_island-from_sea acceptance summarised in the quote from Robinson Crusoe at the beginning of the book: “I learn’d to look more upon the bright side of my condition and less upon the dark side, and to consider what I enjoy’d rather than what I wanted; and this gave me sometimes such secret comforts that I cannot express them.”

This is a novel of ideas and character rather than action and plot. I found it gripping and read it all in one sitting, drawn in by Bloodworth’s realisation that our own minds can be our worst prisons, and his struggle to find a way of thinking (and thus being) that will make the best of his situation. The final part of the book was my favourite, when the story suddenly and beautifully takes flight into magic realism, giving the dramatic final events an almost holy glow.

Randall is an assured and seasoned novelist, and this is a subtle and complex drama, compulsively drawn along by the tantalising possibility of a sail on the horizon. Highly recommended.

Review by Elizabeth Heritage
www.elizabethheritage.co.nz

The Bright Side of My Condition
by Charlotte Randall
Published by Penguin NZ
ISBN 9780143570660