Book Review: The Salted Air, by Thom Conroy

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_salted_airThis is a story about death. Or rather, a story about the spaces left behind after death. Djuna has lost her partner, Harvey, to suicide. But more, she has lost her direction, her purpose and all the solid ground beneath, which holds us in times of grief.

The story is told through short, prosaic chapters. It is like visiting an art gallery with each chapter a painting of something from before, or from after. Each chapter could stand alone as an example of beautiful writing. At times, I struggled with this format as it seemed almost self-indulgent. Yet it matches the disjointed character of Djuna who is set adrift in this gallery, looking for the exit. Her own parents are separated, both legally and physically. Her mother in America, her father in the far north, seeking for his own purpose in life.

Djuna has to cope with her own grief and sense of guilt which is so much the story after a suicide. However, Conroy also shows the responsibility she has to Harvey’s parents, and to his brother, Bruce. While she is drawn to Bruce through mutual grief, she also has to question the morality of their affair. His wife and daughter are part of this complex tale of relationships and resolution.

Thom Conroy last year published The Naturalist, a novel based on the life of German naturalist, Dr Ernst Dieffenbach who travelled to New Zealand in 1839. Some of the issues involving Maori land ownership and European values are touched on again in this more contemporary novel. Here we see the effect of colonisation 150 years down the track. By using the snapshot narrative structure to tell this tale, Conroy has produced a superb series of sketches through which we weave with Djuna.

As a teacher, I could easily use each of the smaller chapters as an example of writing as craft. The language, the structure, the metaphor all come together to produce a true reading experience. The format matches the turbulent movement within as the black and white sea images front and back cover, hold a surging tide-of-a-tale.

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

The Salted Air
By Thom Conroy
Published by Vintage New Zealand
ISBN 9781775538820

Book Review: The Naturalist, by Thom Conroy

Available now in bookstores nationwide. 

cv_the_naturalistThom Conroy is a man of two nations – his homeland of the USA, and his current home of New Zealand – and an academic. That’s at least two things he has in common with his chosen protagonist, Dr Ernst Dieffenbach. Dieffenbach is described on Te Ara as an ‘explorer, naturalist, linguist and writer’ while Wikipedia calls him a ‘physician, geologist and naturalist’. The blurb of Conroy’s book refers to a ‘scientist, explorer, revolutionary, outcast’. So, the fictionalization would seem to take on board both the local and the international, with a little poetic licence to boot.

Regardless of historical accuracy – and a little research suggests that the book is fairly true to life – the vividness of character and landscape that Conroy captures in the novel is rather spectacular.

Conroy has an impressive background in short fiction. For some authors, the shift from short to long format prose is a difficult one – but with The Naturalist, Conroy shows that he is more than up to the task. The novel is divided into sections from different stages of his life and travels, but even as the cast of characters rotate around him, there is still an enduring sense of Dieffenbach’s simultaneous (yet very different) quests – to discover new and wonderful things at the edges of the known world and to find a way home to his family and past in Giessen.

According to Conroy’s website, The Naturalist was originally going to be called Ark of Specimens – and as much as that title is wonderfully evocative (if a little macabre), The Naturalist fits the story that he has told. It is Dieffenbach’s story, and his alone.
Weaving world history and local folklore together with a deft hand for prose, Thom Conroy has written a novel about a New Zealand that is at once familiar and alien. It’s always startling to be reminded how much the landscape of our country has changed in a relatively short time; Dieffenbach’s first voyage from Europe to the South Pacific on the Tory was in 1839.

It has been a very good couple of years for New Zealand historical fiction, and The Naturalist continues that trend. It’s wonderfully written with a beautiful cover design (when there are takahē involved, I’m sold) and leads you on a winding journey through history, nature and Aotearoa.

Reviewed by Briar Lawry, bookseller and publishing student

The Naturalist
by Thom Conroy
Published by Vintage
ISBN 9781775536482