Book Review: Home, edited by Thom Conroy

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_home_new_writingThere was a flood of excitement when this collection came out, and understandably so. It’s beautiful and thick with a classy list of contributors and a solid concept; personal essays from NZ writers on what home means to them. It’s also from a new publisher, Massy University Press. The theme is topical, and timeless; intensely personal, and universal – it’s everything we want a personal essay to be. Mostly this collection is all of those things, but occasionally it meanders off into upper-middle-class small talk slush.  The theme might be too personal for some writers. A few got caught up in describing their household furniture.

Some of the pieces are absolute literature, particularly those that ruminate on home, and something else. Ashleigh Young, in my new favourite Ashleigh Young essay – Matrices, writes about home and secrets, specifically those of other people. With the accuracy and honesty that characterise her writing, she writes of her childhood self, ‘The truth is, whenever I flagrantly invaded someone’s privacy, I felt that somehow I’d won. It was as if we were always playing a game but others kept forgetting we were playing it.’

Gina Cole’s Grandma instructs her on how to dive for turtles and they watch TV together, among many other things. She’s hard to quote without typing out the whole thing (I like this essay, the turtles are worth knowing about!) so I’ll stick with a very brilliant metaphor for Muldoon’s hair: ‘His left cheek is pulled into a rictus of a smile. He looks bald although there are thin strips of hair combed straight back from a neat receding hairline and running down the middle of his head and on each side of his ears… like tiny tentacles gripping on to an egg.’

Martin Edmond writes a biography of Mollie, a circus elephant now buried in Ohakune. Sarah Jane Barnett is marvellous on running as a way to find a home in your own body, a point past pain where you can be in solitude and peace with yourself.

I felt very at home with Helen Lehndorf, who writes with power and honesty about her son’s autism, and about love. ‘All the good fights I fought, I fought for him.’

In Bonnie Etherington’s essay, ‘Never Coming Home,’ a village elder in West Papua tells her father, ‘In the past we knew who the enemy was. It was Suharto, so we could fight him. But now, we know we are being destroyed, but we don’t know who by. How do you fight something when you don’t know what or who it is?’ and she continues, ‘Suharto’s fall was meant to solve many things. And people can move now without feeling his eyes on them. But the scars in Papua’s dirt grow and the trees keep falling, squeezing people from their gardens and their homes as they watch people from elsewhere in Indonesia move in on the ‘empty’ land.’

I have more favourites, but I don’t want to simply quote and praise things I liked, because as I said it often felt a lot like small talk. There are a lot of middle-aged, daddish sentences like, ‘In our family we all saw sport as a stimulating challenge, physically, mentally and technically. That’s why we liked it so much.’

I don’t want to single anyone out because it happens right across the board, including in some of my favourites. Halfway through the collection I started wondering what I would submit if commissioned to write a personal essay about home? My essay would be terribly self-indulgent and tedious. It would be about how glad I am that the Karori Countdown have widened their selection of teas, but how I still think that, actually, it would lovely to have a few more options. So, when I think about how bad things might have been, this collection is exceptionally good.

Not that Home is an uninteresting or irrelevant topic, far from it. But it’s a subject that can bring out the most dreary in anyone if they’re not careful.

Home is fun to read, relevant, compassionate and frequently sharp. It’s a big book, and not too expensive, so I’d recommend it to anyone on the condition that they make sure not to beat themselves up if they end up skipping the odd page, or even a few whole essays.

Reviewed by Annaleese Jochems

Home: New Writing
by Thom Conroy
Published by Massey University PRess
ISBN 9780994140753

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