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This 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