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

Book Review: Hoard, by Fleur Adcock

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_hoardFleur Adcock’s Hoard is a compilation of poems that weren’t included in Adcock’s last two poetry books, The Land Ballot and Glass Wings, because they didn’t suit the theme of these collections. The poems in Hoard instead reflect on Adcock’s own life through a variety of topics.

In Six Typewriters, Adcock uses six typewriters she owns as springboards to different moments in her life. She begins by talking about her ‘father’s reconditioned / German keyboard… with a spiky Gothic ‘o’’. Then she describes ‘Barry Crump’s portable / Empire Corona’, and how it has been slowly rusting away. She ends with a typewriter that her mother gave to her. Adcock claims that this typewriter was so efficient that she didn’t care for computers. Then, with what I would imagine would be a wry smile, Adcock ends the poem declaring that, of computers ‘I shall say nothing’.

This subtle wit is a large part of Adcock’s poetic voice and it carries on throughout the collection. Although Adcock has lived in Britain since 1963, she was born in New Zealand and makes regular visits to New Zealand as well. For this reason, New Zealand features heavily in Adcock’s poetry as a defining feature of her life.

In the poem Fowlds Park, Adcock speaks fondly about her time in this park. She talks about the memories attached to the area and how ‘Everything here matters to someone: / the swings, the coin-in-the-slot barbecue…’ However, Adcock chooses to talk about the bad as well as the good. She also states that the park’s beauty is something short-lived because ‘The bastards will get their hands on it… they will come with their development schemes’. Adcock’s fondness for the park does not mean she is blinded by the fact that it can be ruined, and that other precious green spaces in New Zealand have already been altered.

Adcock’s playful wit also comes to light in Raglan. At the start of the poem, Adcock asks, ‘What do you do in Raglan when it’s raining?’ Well, according to Adcock, you could sit outside the library and use the free Wi-Fi. You could go to the museum but, as Adcock states, ‘when you’ve seen it / you’ve seen it’, and you’ve probably already seen it if you live there. Through this good-humoured tone, Adcock highlights a specifically New Zealand condition: what it’s like to live in a small town like Raglan.

Adcock’s imagery is also particularly vivid, and this shows through her poem The Lipstick. In this piece, Adcock describes a shade of lipstick that is so ‘shudderingly wrong’. She imagines what it will be like when she throws it away and when it ends up in the landfill:

seeping and oozing, leaking fats
through its patiently corroding
armour, wailing invisibly
into the soil with its puce voice.

Fleur Adcock’s hoard of poems cover a wide array of topics, all reflecting on different moments in her life. Although there is no underlying theme, Adcock’s voice threads all these pieces together into a diary of memories.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

Hoard 
by Fleur Adcock
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN 9781776561674

 

Book Review: Athens to Aotearoa, edited by Tatum Jeff

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_athens_to_aotearoa.jpgHow does New Zealand art engage with its classical inheritance? Not the second-nature parts we’re barely conscious of, but the vestigial, alien stuff – gods and gorgons and all that? Critics and artists offer their takes in the essays collected in Athens to Aotearoa.

It’s another cross-marketing success from VUP – craftily, the blurb leads with the glamour of “New Zealand’s most important artistic voices” and backends poor old dowdy criticism. It’s very accessible for an academic text; I pieced together my knowledge of the ancient world mostly from films starring pro wrestlers but I could understand most of it. The only exception was Tom Stevenson’s essay on Xena: Warrior Princess, which clearly wasn’t written for readers who were five when the show went off the air – was this show really so central to national identity? And how’s Xena pashing Hercules one episode and Julius Caesar the next? Baffling.

The artists’ essays are mostly theory-conscious enough to blur with the more academic stuff, but Witi Ihimaera’s collection-opener, “What If Cyclops Was Alive and Well and Living in a Cave in Invercargill?”, is breezy and wonderful. Other highlights are essays by Sharon Matthews and Geoffrey Miles on James K. Baxter, obviously an especially rich subject here, and Peter Whiteford’s incisive essay on Anna Seward’s Homer-invoking Elegy on Captain Cook. Quality’s high throughout. There are no bad essays here, although the final piece, Arlene Holmes-Henderson’s comparative study of Classics as a school subject in NZ and the UK, is the kind of graphs-and-stats thing a casual reader’s apt to flick through at speed.

As you’d expect from a collection originating in a conference theme, there’s no overall thesis advanced in these essays, and their eclecticism and often minute focus sometimes makes the classical world feel like a strangely niche subject for study, like “The Car in New Zealand Pop Music” or “Wigs in Poetry”. Where it did reach for a deeper point, I wasn’t always convinced. When classicist Simon Perris, in his engaging piece on Maui and Orpheus, writes of “Māori-classical-Pakeha Triculturalism”, it felt a bit like a mycologist arguing for the cultural centrality of the mushroom.

I also would’ve been keen to see something more evaluative. The really interesting questions Athens to Aotearoa raises, about the use of an imagined Greece to mediate Māori-Pakeha cultural dialogue, are just suggested instead of being really dug into and interrogated. There’s definitely room to argue that the implications are more ambiguous than the fairly rosy bicultural picture we get here; when we compare Maui to Orpheus, do we make the myth resonate deeper or culturally streamroll it, strip it of its weird particularity?

But it’s far from the worst thing for an academic text to suggest there’s a lot more to be written about the subject, even/especially one so seemingly niche. Athens to Aotearoa is a bit of a miscellany, but an intriguing, consistently engaging miscellany. It’s an obvious must-read for anyone interested in classics and New Zealand art, and the response essays probably will be too.

Reviewed by Joseph Barbon

Athens to Aotearoa
edited by Tatum Jeff
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN 9781776561766