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: And so it is, by Vincent O’Sullivan

cv_and_so_it_isAvailable now in bookshops nationwide.

It is a rare thing to find a collection of poetry in which each individual poem has the power to affect you in some way. O’Sullivan’s latest book, And so it is, miraculously manages to do this almost effortlessly. Reading through the collection I found myself re-reading each poem, each line, always savouring the way the words played around. I kept the poems in my head, reading silently to try and grasp at meanings, and I read the poems out loud to hear the way they roll off the tongue. There is a magic around these poems, hard to define but strongly felt.

From the beginning we are greeted with strange but pleasing ideas. The opening poem, Knowing what it’s about, starts with a woman who’s the quiet one / in any group of women thinks it / a fair morning’s work, this setting free / a bee that’s tangled to one of a dozen / webs on a garage door.

This scene feels ordinary, almost comical, given the way the woman and what she thinks is described. It is a small thing, this action, made into a larger feeling, a fair morning’s work. But when we get to the end of the poem, O’Sullivan puts forward a strange notion, as the bee flies away into a life ‘more direct than / ours’, she says, ‘knowing what it’s about’. It is an interesting thought, and it touches on a more fundamentally human question of purpose. It is this subtle movement towards these kinds of feelings that make these poems so interesting. Where we start with a bee being freed from a web, we are left with a feeling that is almost too human.

There is also a side-serve of poems that deal with many different subjects. To be able to identify with O’Sullivan’s poetry becomes much easier. From the questions raised by the age of technology in poem The Reality Problem, to thinking about the nature of language in poem The less than genuine article, to the closing lines of the collection, ‘Nothing is truly in- / significant, you say, not even that bit / about a billion years in This week then,’ And so it is is broad in its imaginings. This broad spectrum of subjects, styles, and questions makes it easy to sink into the familiar and find something to enjoy about this collection.

Each poem acts like an individual, separated from the next, different and new. There is no sameness in And so it is, no repetitiveness. But while the poetry has this quality to it, there is no sense of isolation, no jarring moments that make you cringe. The differences somehow come together, the poems weaving together, creating something entirely different as a whole. And this is what makes the collection work, the seamless integration of different ideas and feelings tied together through O’Sullivan’s words.

Reviewed by Matthias Metzler

And so it is
by Vincent O’Sullivan
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776560592

Book Review: The Families, by Vincent O’Sullivan


Available now in bookstores nationwide. 

Vincent O’Sullivan is the current New Zealand poet laureate. He is a Distinguished Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit, a recipient of the Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement, and has twice won the Montana New Zealand Book Award for Poetry. It is impossible, therefore, to come to his latest collection of short stories, The Families, without expectations.

There are fourteen stories in The Families, and the title story is ninth. By the time I reached it I found myself skipping sentences and paragraphs, trying not to feel weighed down by the density of the prose. Perhaps I didn’t give myself enough time? But I’d just come from reading Gemma Bowker-Wright’s collection The Red Queen where it sometimes feels like an entire life can be captured in a few well-chosen words.

O’Sullivan’s stories have depth, there’s no doubt about that, but the writing is not as I’d expected. Take this, from ‘Mrs Bennett and the Bears’, “She raised her hand to hush the women at the table behind her, on the other side of the two bottles and the plates with their scattered shells.” Or this, from ‘Keeping an Eye’, “Lexy caught her brother’s eye and puckered her forehead, her signalling to watch it, bro, as she had begun saying recently, an expression that irritated her mother. Mum, as the twins well knew, had a shorter fuse than Dad.”

O’Sullivan draws the reader in but too often I found myself impatiently hurrying through long sentences and paragraphs, trying to get to the substance of each story. They traverse the full range of themes confronting families – an elderly parent in a nursing home, troubled children returning home as troubled adults, the revelation of a past affair, a family coming together after the death of a parent. Perhaps the strongest, for me, were those that did not dwell on old age, like ‘Luce’, the simply told account of a young boy sent away to relatives in the South Island after his father commits a crime, and ‘On Another Note’, previously published in Second Violins, a collection based on and inspired by Katherine Mansfield’s stories.

I asked my friends what they thought of the book. They looked at each other first before offering comments like ‘thoughtful,’ and ‘gentle,’ then quickly moving on to agree the cover design was ‘awful.’ The cover shows a slightly coarse line drawing of a stork’s nest, the out-of-sight adult’s long bill reaching down to feed three hungry chicks.

I wanted to like The Families more than I did. I knew these were important, relevant, meaningful stories by one of our most accomplished writers. But as I ploughed through sentences and paragraphs full of details, sometimes struggling to work out whose point of view the story had shifted to, I tired of them quickly.

Perhaps I will come back to this collection, spend more time with it, make more of an effort to get to know the characters, dwell on the details. Perhaps as I age I will see more of the truths that O’Sullivan has undoubtedly set out, and perhaps I will care more about the people he writes about. But, for now, I’d rather read Alice Munro’s ‘Runaway’ or Gemma Bowker-Wright’s ‘Katherine’, where a single sentence can hit you so hard you have to put the book down, unable to breathe.

Reviewed by C P Howe

The Families
by Vincent O’Sullivan
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN 9780864739193

Line Up, poetry at the Dunedin Writers and Readers Festival

The poet Emma Neale (right) could make a emma_nealecareer out of emceeing poetry events.

On a sunny Saturday afternoon, to a room full of attentive listeners in the Dunedin Public Art Gallery, Neale introduced five poets with a series of eloquent encomiums that might have had the line up blushing were it not composed of old pros. It was lovely to listen to.

Bernadette Hall, Owen Marshall, former poet laureate Cilla McQueen, current poet laureate Vincent O’Sullivan, and Brian Turner had a tough act to follow but were up to it as one-by-one they stepped up to the microphone, most in quite sensible shoes, to deliver a cupful of their ‘crisp’ or ‘pellucid,’ ‘pared back’ or ‘erudite’ poetry.

The oeuvres and achievements of these writers – writers who are arguably among this country’s finest and most prolific – are well known to a reading public. So rather than describe the content of their selections, it might be more illuminating if I focus on the cumulative effect.

For an hour or so, the most valued currency in Dunedin and thus the world was language: carefully chosen words detonating sensual shock and visual charge, delivered in the various tones of the sufferers of that condition called being a poet.

And after the poetry, the questions from the audience, provoking the small revelations of self which readers love to hear. We left with humming ears.

Event reviewed by Aaron Blaker, on behalf of Booksellers NZ

Dunedin Writers and Readers Festival – Chain Reaction

“Chain Reaction” was one of the earliespp_philippa_duffyt events on offer during the inaugural Dunedin Writers and Readers Festival—in fact it preceded the official opening. But I, as a booklover, was very happy to see that didn’t stop a big crowd turning up (in inclement weather, no less) for this six-launches-in-one event. After drinks and nibbles, Philippa Duffy (pictured) from University Book Shop opened proceedings and introduced the writers whose books were being launched—David Eggleton, Vincent O’Sullivan, Breton Dukes, Paddy Richardson, Owen Marshall, and David Howard.

Unfortunately, the night started on a somewhatcv_born_to_a_red-headed_woman sombre note. Kay McKenzie Cooke had been scheduled to also attend the event in order to launch her third poetry collection, Born to a Red Headed Woman. However her mother—the ‘red-headed woman’ of her collection’s title—very recently passed away. Rachel Scott from Otago University Press spoke on Kay’s behalf, and read “Family Tree” from her collection.

David Eggleton’s address was jovial and lively, in support of the latest issue of Landfall, going strong since 1947 and, in David’s words, “like Aorangi [Mt Cook]… a landmark” in Kiwi letters. Although themed around “vital signs”, Issue 227 sounds like quite a varied smorgasbord cv_the_familiesof delights (or as David put it, “a cabaret between covers”!). There’s poetry from 34 poets, an essay on the word ‘Solomon’, and a suite of paintings by Mark Braunias.

Fergus Barrowman from Victoria University Press then introduced Vincent O’Sullivan and Breton Dukes. Vincent spoke first, and quipped that, given that the writers stood on the mezzanine level of the venue while most of the crowd stood below, “this will the closest any of us will get to the Sermon on the Mount!” Then, while he was in the midst of thanking VUP and Fergus Barrowman for their support of his new short story collection The Families, his cellphone rang. Oops.cv_empty_bones_and_other_stories

Breton Dukes read from his new book Empty Bones And Other Stories, which was the product of two years’ hard work. He described a short story as an immediate “transport system” to the experience or revelation of a character. He also described some of the stories in his collection. As a student, I was amused to hear there’s one about getting drunk and stealing a car from outside Poppa’s Pizza, the local pizza joint opposite the University’s main library. Nothing like a bit of local flavour!

Paddy Richardson also read from cv_swimming_in_the_darkher new book, called Swimming in the Dark and published by Upstart Press. The passage she read, which detailed her German protagonist’s sense of displacement in New Zealand, was evocative and certainly held the audience’s attention.

Owen Marshall was there to launch Carnival Sky (Vintage). In particular, he singled out his long time editor Anna Rogers for thanks, as well as the Henderson Arts Trust, which granted him a residency in Alexandra that enabled him to finish Carnival Sky. (Incidentally, a significant portion of that novel is set in Alexandra.)

Finally David Howard read from his new chapbook The Speak House, which imagines thecv_carnival_sky fevered thoughts and memories of Robert Louis Stevenson in the last hours of his life—what David described as Stevenson’s “mental disarray”.

All the speakers thanked the organisers of the DWRF for organising the event. Fergus Barrowman went a step further and thanked them for bringing the festival back, and foretold (hopefully correctly!) that the DWRF would be an important fixture in Dunedin’s calendar in the future. Hear hear!

Event reported by Febriani Idrus, freelance writer and student 

Words of the Day, Wednesday 4 December 2013


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