Book Review: The Absolute Book, by Elizabeth Knox

Available in bookshops nationwide from 12 September 2019
The Launch is at Unity Books on Thursday, 12 September

cv_the_absolute_bookElizabeth Knox’s thirteenth novel promises fantasy on a grand scale from the outset, with its brave title, heft, and illustrative cover; yet turn the pages and the reader is transported into the opening of a juicy crime thriller. Thus begins an unpredictable and intelligent work of imagination that plunges the reader ever deeper into a modern world interwoven within a realm of fantasy and folklore.

The story follows Taryn Cornick, a successful writer from England, whose recent literary acclaim and marriage to a wealthy and thoughtful husband should be enviable, yet are overshadowed by the loss of her older sister in a hit-and-run incident. Unable to reconcile herself with the punishment meted out by the justice system, she sets the wheels in motion for her own revenge – and unwittingly, her damnation. What ensues is a kaleidoscopic tale of her salvation by Shift, a misfit from a seemingly utopian parallel world, and a band of characters encountered along the way. Could Taryn’s latest book, inspired by the library of her late grandfather provide the key to what everyone – and everything is so desperately seeking?

This book was unexpectedly fast-paced: I could almost feel the author grabbing me by the shirtfront and ripping me through the portals of this labyrinthine fantasy. The relaxed writing style and sensory descriptions give the story as much ease and addictiveness as a holiday paperback, but without compromising on intellect. Knox aligns her story and characters in our current social, cultural and environmental state, and uses the fantasy realms to question and highlight, horrify and add humour to the ultimate questions, and challenges we face. Taryn’s reality, past and present, unravels to the reader in patterns that begin with something seemingly idyllic which is inevitably corrupt or corrupted. The same goes for the fantasy realm of Knox’s story – the utopian society is riddled with flaws, the demons are more sinned against than sinning, and Purgatory shares our frustrations with public transport and healthcare.

This is the kind of book you keep on your shelf for years to come, and discover new depths each time you re-read it. Anyone who enjoys the bounty and beauty of J.R.R.Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, and the far-from-perfect characters of Neil Gaiman will appreciate the depth of imagination, and level of critical thinking that has been poured into this book. Even Taryn’s rare slip in word use, which momentarily unveils her New Zealand creator, can be forgiven. It reminds the reader this is not an English import, it is a New Zealand writer at the top of their game.

Reviewed by Lynette Hartgill

The Absolute Book
by Elizabeth Knox
Victoria University Press
ISBN 9781776562305

Book Review: How I Get Ready, by Ashleigh Young

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_how_i_get_ready.jpgI saw this book and thought ‘this encapsulates my life’. The woman on the front of How I Get Ready looks like she’s having more than a bad hair day. She’s a Quentin-Blake-esque illustration, as scribbles eclipse her and what she’s wearing from the waist up. I almost burst out laughing. Perhaps it’s a meant to be a windy day in Wellington? Either way, I’m getting vibes of spontaneity and disorder. What a fantastic cover and title combo.

So, the poems. These are anything but slapped together and harried, but they are full of vivacity. Even though the poems seem to be about real life, they feel imagined and fantastical – for example, they leap from subject to subject in a way that reminds me of Lorelai off Gilmore Girls. Like, we start with a potato and somehow segue to a coral reef, an aquarium, blood and a balsawood aeroplane. It’s a mishmash, told by a sassy and energetic voice:

Tantruming moon throws light at my house
like unwanted treasure. Go on
do that one more time.

As well as a poet with a previous collection to her name, Magnificent Moon (VUP, 2012), Young is the author of a collection of essays entitled Can You Tolerate This? (VUP, 2016). She is Poetry Editor for The Spinoff Review of Books and currently resides in Wellington. Her confident voice invokes her own name several times in her poems, giving the sense that these are personal, opening up her mind space. She delivers keys to private moments, and we can only guess at their meaning:

As you open your mouth
thousands of fish cross the room
and entirely clothe you in their fish shadow

and even though I cannot see you now,
it looks so good.

‘Fancy’ is catchy with its refrain ‘We should always overdress for each other’. Meanwhile, things get playful in ‘The Feeling of Action’:

And we agreed the feeling of action
as he was flying or jumping or leaping –
a flowing cape would give him movement
it really helped and
it was very easy to draw

These are clever, funny, complex poems, with plenty of ideas to explore. Young experiments with a variety of styles, presenting a poetry practice that is consistently evolving. And the final poem of the book, How I Get Ready, makes us think of a beginning rather than an end. It heralds a step into the unknown:

and the air turns over, gently exposing
its soft underbelly. My going-out clothes are waiting for me
ironed smooth, laid out like a disappearance.

Reviewed by Susannah Whaley

How I Get Ready
by Ashleigh Young
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776562367

Book Review: A Mistake, by Carl Shuker

Available from today in bookshops nationwide. Launched tonight at Wellington’s Unity Books. 

cv_a_mistake.jpgI’m a sucker for any book about strong women, medicine, and Wellington. This book is a slam-dunk, because it covers all three, so, spoiler alert: I loved this book.

A Mistake, by New Zealand author Carl Shuker, follows a brilliant surgeon, Elizabeth Taylor, who is at the peak of her powers as a surgeon, but somehow continually getting in her own way as a human being. So devoted to perfection she will demolish an entire internal wall of her house to get rid of a barely perceptible imperfection, she has alienated almost every person she comes into contact with.

When surgery goes wrong and a patient dies, Elizabeth finds that the people and institutions she has sacrificed her adult life for would rather avert their eyes then stand by her. At the same time the government is preparing to publicly report surgical outcomes, with the potential to ruin a surgeon’s career overnight. Elizabeth has to navigate the opaque politics of the hospital, the DHB, and the medical community with enough skill to salvage her own career.

Elizabeth is, in many ways, not a particularly likeable person, so it is a huge tribute to Shuker’s skills as an author that I cared so much for her fate I could hardly put A Mistake down. A Mistake is a short book – only 182 pages – and Shuker writes with a brief, almost staccato style in places. Yet his characterisation is so deft I feel I know her like a friend. A friend who has continually battled the inherent sexism and deeply slanted gender politics of the medical profession for twenty years and still can’t rustle up one person she can actually rely on among her colleagues.

Elizabeth is a strong person with a laser focus on whatever task she decides to conquer, and an unbelievable loyalty to the teams of medical professionals she works with. She is also unpleasantly honest, demanding and not given to unnecessary niceties. This combination of behaviour raises her to the height of profession, and would be not only tolerated but rewarded and praised in a man. Yet for Elizabeth, this leads to her almost total alienation by her peers. It is a story that women have seen happen over and over again, and it is both slightly astonishing and deeply reassuring to see this recognised and reflected by a male author.

Interwoven with Elizabeth’s narrative is a parallel retelling of the timeline of the 1986 Challenger space shuttle tragedy. This might sound forced and out of place, but in Shuker’s hands it makes perfect sense, both echoing and enhancing Elizabeth’s story – in a complex machine, as in a human being, the smallest failure can lead to disaster. Even though the world knows how the Challenger’s trajectory played out, I still found I was racing to read the next instalment of the timeline.

Wellington plays a small but significant part in the charm of this book. It is surprising that it is still, in 2019, relatively rare to read a book that celebrates its New Zealand-ness rather than smothering it or bleaching it to the point it could be set in any country in the world. So it still feels to me like a fresh delight to read a book so assuredly set in New Zealand.

This is Shuker’s fifth novel and the first I have read. My unread books pile is threatening to engulf my entire house, but based on the strength of A Mistake, I’m willing to add the rest of Shuker’s oeuvre to the towering stack.

Reviewed by Emma Marr

A Mistake
by Carl Shuker
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN 978177656145

Book Review: We Can Make a Life, by Chessie Henry

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_we_can_make_a_lifeChessie Henry’s We Can Make a Life is a powerful, affecting memoir. Spanning a family history of adventure, love, bravery and loss, Henry writes tenderly about her family’s journey through multiple traumatic experiences – including the Christchurch and Kaikōura earthquakes – and their unbending courage in the face of them.

We Can Make a Life leaves a lingering imprint. It demands to be felt; emotionally impactful, it invites the reader to empathise with and reflect on the shared experience of trauma. A freelance writer based in Wellington, author Chessie Henry is a Master of Creative Writing graduate of the IIML. A book ‘that’s been swimming around my head for the last couple of years’, We Can Make a Life is her debut work.

The book opens with an email from Christopher Henry, Chessie’s father, describing his burnout following years of non-stop work as a rural GP. Written one week before he received a Bravery Medal for his role in the Christchurch 2011 earthquake, the placing of this desperate email is deliberate. Not only a call for help from Chris, the letter is a warning against the overwork of our New Zealand medical (particularly rural) personnel.

Jumping back to the ‘beginning’, Henry details her parent’s childhoods and schooling in England; Chris and Esther’s escapades as young adults; their serendipitous meeting through Esther’s brother Andrew – Chris’s best friend – and their adventurous (and, on occasion, terrifying) one-year honeymoon trekking across Africa. Henry describes her parent’s early life and marriage with a gentle warmth which dips but never delves into sentimentality. We get the sense that Chris and Esther are wanderers: people content to embrace every possible opportunity no matter where it may lead. When Esther was seven months pregnant with Chessie, the couple emigrated to Sumner, Christchurch.

Four younger brothers – Finn, Matt, Rufus, and Rocky – soon followed, and Henry depicts the fun (and challenges) of growing up within such a large family. When Chessie was nine, the family (with five children under ten) moved to Tokelau, where Chris worked as GP to the tiny island community. Facing multiple stressful – and dangerous – trials, the year in Tokelau was the first massive upheaval in the Henrys’ lives.

Following moves back to Sumner, then Kaikōura, and then the beautiful rural area of Clarence where Esther worked to create the perfect family home, the reader is completely emotionally invested in every member of this close-knit, warm and hilarious family. This makes the chapters on the 2011 Christchurch earthquake even more hard-hitting. The unedited interviews with Chris and Esther are both poignant and harrowing, depicting first-person accounts of the devastation the February 22 Christchurch earthquake, and the 14 November 2016 Kaikōura earthquake, caused. Chris’s honest account of the rescue mission at the collapsed CTV building is particularly difficult to read, but so important.

Henry’s personal story is the glue that connects the disparate chapters together. The memoir is partly a story of Henry writing the memoir; of conversations and interviews with family members and friends – be they in the car, over dinner, at the bar, or in a leaky Wellington flat. The memoir recalls important talismans in Henry’s life that hold significant personal importance – such as a broken seagull ornament – that are catalysts and anchors for unravelling memories. We Can Make a Life is the story of Henry working as a curator of her family history: sifting through the pieces that make the cut, choosing those which do not – and being open about this process and its difficulties. The result is a neatly ordered memoir: each chapter tells a segment of the family story.

A starkly current book, it opens the floor for multiple discussions. It highlights the issues facing the New Zealand medical scene: not only the inadequate funding of rural centres and personnel, but also the problems facing overworked staff in an understaffed system. The memoir highlights the present mental health crisis, particularly the insidious ‘black dog’ that haunts not only the Henry family, but people across New Zealand.

We Can Make a Life is a timely, evocative, empathetic and finely crafted memoir. Written in beautifully detailed prose (‘Even the hills seemed colourless, wet rocks that had slid out of the ocean like tired swimmers, their spines curling back towards the sea’), this memoir will provoke multiple conversations. My recommendation: go read it, and then send it on – mine is winging its way towards my parents as I write.

Reviewed by Rosalie Elliffe

We Can Make a Life
by Chessie Henry
Victoria University Press
ISBN 9781776561940

Book Review: All This By Chance, by Vincent O’Sullivan

cv_all_this_by_chanceAvailable in bookshops nationwide.

In 1947 Stephen leaves New Zealand, ‘A farm, Cows and mud and half a day by bus from anywhere,’ to train as a pharmacist in in post war London. It was there he met Eva, ‘Tall and quiet and calm, the words first occurring to him as he walked beside her’.

‘All this by chance ,as they kept saying to each other in those first months together… the sheer chance of a church social both had felt so awkward at as to run away from.’

Growing up with an English family Eva has suppressed much of her early life and Jewish background, but as the couple are about to return to New Zealand her Aunt Babcia (Ruth) is reunited with her, and stirs memories of their life in Europe and Hitler’s Germany.

There are a number of characters in the book and the author has listed the key people in the front of the book with the year of their birth, which helps the reader keep the storyline in context, as it progresses through the chapters from 1947 to 2004, and then back to 1038 for the finale. Stephen and Eva’s son and daughter deal with their family history completely differently, with David keen to delve into a Jewish way of life, while Lisa is content to ignore her mother’s background.

Born in Auckland in 1937 Vincent O’Sullivan is the author of two previous novels Let the River Stand which won the 1994 Montana NZ Book Award, and Believers to the Bright Coast which was shortlisted for the 2001 Tasmania Pacific Region prize. He has also written a number of plays, short stories and poems and worked as an editor and critic.

Now living in Dunedin, O’Sullivan was made a Distinguished Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit in the 2000 Queens Birthday Honours and was the New Zealand poet laureate 2013-2015.

All This By Chance is a beautifully written book which requires concentration to capture the moving family story told by three generations, of the horrors of the holocaust and the burden of secrets never shared. Keely O’Shannessy has designed a very fitting cover which invites the reader down the path through the trees into a family who has tried to forget the atrocities of war, but finds the following generations becoming fascinated with their background history, and wanting to learn more.

I enjoyed this book, especially the author’s choice of words and phrases such as ‘Against the wall a gas heater she fed with shillings and florins purred when the weather turned’, and anyone who enjoys family history will find it a great read.

Reviewed By Lesley McIntosh

All This By Chance
by Vincent O’Sullivan
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN 9781776561797

 

Book Review: The Facts, by Therese Lloyd

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_facts.jpg

When I save these words I’m reminded
this product is licensed to you.
(‘Light and Things,’ after Bill Culbert)

Therese Lloyd’s poems in The Facts are open about where their origins are owed. While the word processor in the poem Light and Things is owned by the narrator’s departing husband, these poems also incorporate a range of artists who inspire and influence the writing. This book is the product of Lloyd’s IIML doctoral thesis on the role of ekphrasis (responding to artwork via poetry) in the work of Canadian poet and classicist Anne Carson.

The grand experiment of The Facts is purposeful and beguiling, as Lloyd investigates the role of artistic influence by immersing herself in the experience of being-influenced. The inability of these poems to exist in isolation from the art inextricably interwoven with Lloyd’s life is a convincing conceptual framework, exploring the way poems and other art ‘echo and re-echo against each other’ (as she quotes Jack Spicer). However, getting the best from this book is dependent on a reader’s existing knowledge of art and Anne Carson – or our preparedness to flip between the printed poems and Google search.

Some readers will find the ekphrastic aspect of The Facts delightful. Frequent credits to artists (like Bill Culbert and Graham Fletcher, musicians like Beck and Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam, and poets like Stéphane Mallarmé and Carson) offer an element of discovery by inviting readers to cross-reference to other texts. The way the lives and meanings of artworks spill over or drench through each other is an aspect of the book that enriches the subject matter of the individual poems, as the characters within collide and drift apart – bruising, staining, offering, conquering, relinquishing.  Part of the fun in the ekphrastic works about visual art is the way the ‘original’ artworks are themselves newly enlivened by Lloyd’s lyric reinvention. I was especially captivated by the inner worlds Lloyd lends to Edward Hopper’s painted women. She inhabits their restless stillness, their ambivalence between settling down or abruptly rising, without ever forcing a narrative or solution upon them.

The poems in this collection are clear-eyed and intense, arranged in three subject-categories of time, desire, and absence. The titular poem The Facts is a crisp, considered, punch-in-the-gut telling of a toxic love affair that doubles as a meditation on the science-cum-wizardry of writing truth from memory. I love these lines on the paradox of writing “the facts” of memoir, despite the amorphous nature of memory and perspective:

To write about us in the past tense forces form
on the formless, parentheses on the eternal. A neat, parabolic air settles and makeshift wisdom
takes the place of the real. Yet here I am
dedicating lines to the short glitch of us. I want to complete
this thought. I want this thought to end.
(The Facts)

Poems like By Sunday and Rebound are also razor-sharp stand-alone poems, self-contained in deceptively stark images; a refused grapefruit and obsolete kettle. Through this book Lloyd explores rejections of all magnitudes – received with rage; confusion; grace. Poems like Rebound deftly work through those haunting everyday questions (why repair when you can replace?) that determine relationships with domestic appliances and with people.

Between the failing marriage, the toxic ex, and the rotating cast of inspirational artists, Lloyd’s constant companion throughout this book is Anne Carson. ‘What happens when a poet (you or me, your preference)              decides to spend three years of their grown-up life side by side, arm           in arm with another poet?’

There’s risk of reader frustration in framing the book so explicitly around another writer’s work. It could be intimidating to readers who may not want to do a PhD’s worth of study to familiarise themselves with the ‘original’ text, and also position the new work as eternally secondary to its predecessor; always after Anne Carson. The drawing-in of the conceptual and creative work of other artists in attempts to understand life through this work does demonstrate the value of art as a means to guide one’s perception, in current experience or hindsight. Lloyd says she, like Carson, ‘accrues tools along the way to help in her investigations usually dead writers and painters, their wisdom trapped so they can never create anything new, or, more crucially, defend themselves.’

Whether Lloyd’s explicit acknowledgement and interrogation of influence is a success or a weakness of the book, is likely dependent on the reader. The framing of The Facts around the concepts in Lloyd’s doctoral thesis lends an intellectual experiment that is inevitably more rewarding if you’re interested in meta-analysis and are familiar with Anne Carson’s work. Carson’s The Glass Essay is an ideal starting point for new readers, especially if you enjoy this book, which is possible even without encyclopaedic knowledge of Carson, as long as one doesn’t mind feeling out of their depth in reference.

Occasionally, I found myself wishing Lloyd’s raw tellings of thwarted desire depended less on Carson’s collapsing triangle concept so I could feel less like a guilty student who hadn’t done all her homework and could more fully immerse myself in the world of the poems, to experience rather than intellectualise the addictiveness of yearning. But as an academic-ish type myself I often make the argument that intellectualising is a way of experiencing. Tripping up on references which at first mystified me, then seeking out their origin, has made re-reads of this book all the richer. Besides, the poems in this collection – compassionate but unflinching – are rewarding even if you don’t want to be assigned extra reading.

Reviewed by Rebecca Hawkes

The Facts
by Therese Lloyd
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN 9781776561810