DWRF: Catherine Chidgey, with Emma Neale

Each time the Writers & Readers Festival comes to town, the Dunedin autumn becomes clear, still and nuanced. Catherine Chidgey sat on stage this Sunday afternoon and embodied the qualities of the season.

cv_the_wish_child_nzThe festival audience was treated to an articulate conversation between Chidgey and Emma Neale, herself a poised speaker and talented writer. The word and thought chemistry between the two speakers was significant, and it enabled a depth of response from Chidgey on such topics as the tug of Germany, the novelist’s craft and the thirteen-year gestation of her new novel, The Wish Child.

Neale began with an autobiography of Chidgey the writer, and a description of her particular talents. This was an excellent way to bring the audience into the circle of conversation. Chidgey then read a long passage from The Wish Child; this drew the listeners in closer still, and provided context for the ongoing discussion (as well as convincing anyone sensible that this was a book to buy and read in its entirety).

The scene that was read was laden with sensual, often visceral detail ‘…the glittering callipers above his skull…’ ‘…the bees huddled in their hives… and the geese hung by their necks…’ and foreshadowing ‘German boys should be brave… should know that some things had to die’; this combination of delicate detail and exaggerated description is deliberate on the part of Chidgey, and a feature of her best writing. There are echoes of Gunter Grass’s Tin Drum here. The effect is a sense of constant unease for the reader, a feeling that death lives inside ripe matter. This style of writing, of perceiving is entirely appropriate to the subject of the novel: Nazi Germany and its aftermath, a time when bizarre, exaggerated things happened and became part of daily life.

berlin-1816944_960_720.jpgDuring the course of a very swift hour, with fingers fluttering in a Lynchian sort of way, Chidgey laid out the processes involved in writing The Wish Child: her connection to Germany based on time spent there as a shy high school student from Lower Hutt, then on a scholarship in Berlin not long after the fall of the wall, being affected by the visible history in a city still divided. She spoke of the balance to be found between writing and researching, so that the latter doesn’t dominate unduly yet is given the opportunity to shape the narrative. She spoke of the scope of this novel being larger than any she had written previously, of how life events intervene, of how writing Facebook posts about cats had distracted her at times… cue knowing laughter from the audience. Now she works two jobs and has a toddler, so 6am has become the time to write, which has not been a bad thing, ‘as the internal censor does not yet seem to be on!’

When Emma Neale closed the session with the question, ‘And what next?’ Chidgey was able to allude to two projects in progress, which was reassuring; from a selfish point of view, it is good to think that after The Wish Child there will be more from the still, clear, nuanced mind of a fine, fine writer.

Attended and reviewed by Aaron Blaker on behalf of Booksellers NZ

Ed’s note: Catherine Chidgey’s The Wish Child (VUP) and Emma Neale’s Billy Bird (are both up for the Acorn Foundation Literary Award at the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards on Tuesday evening. You can see Chidgey at various events during the Auckland Writers Festival. You can similarly, see Neale at the Auckland Writers Festival next week.

The Wish Child
by Catherine Chidgey
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776560622

Billy Bird
by Emma Neale
Published by Vintage NZ
ISBN 9780143770053

Book Review: The Earth Cries Out, by Bonnie Etherington

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_earth_cries_out.jpgI’m getting harder to please in my old age but The Earth Cries Out has done it. It’s a surprising and quite wonderful novel.

Eight-year-old Ruth moves from Nelson to West Guinea with her parents after her younger sister’s tragic death. Her parents had been drifting apart even before all this happened, and the way we see their pain through Ruth’s eyes is so well done: they’re closed off and hurting, and now even more isolated, literally.

Ruth, though, carries on her childhood. This is the aspect of the book I loved the most: despite the obvious difference between 1990s Nelson, NZ and jungle-surrounded, mountain-top West Guinea, Ruth keeps being eight. Things are as odd and normal as ever: she gets on with learning a new language so she can get on with play and understanding; she sees a dead newborn baby, and comes face-to-face with disease; she invents her own superstitions, and listens to or discards the superstitions of the village.

Life thrums around Ruth – the incredible flora (wonderfully described), the people, the mosquitos – but there’s a stillness to her. She describes scenes so immaculately that, often, it’s almost as if the story isn’t moving forward. It’s compelling, but not because of its action, necessarily; it’s compelling because of how spot-on the author captures childhood’s tiny cruelties and guilts that we never let go of. It’s rounded out by grief and growing up, and a background of politics and history.

This is an impressive, moving, often unflinching debut.

Reviewed by Jane Arthur

The Earth Cries Out
by Bonnie Etherington
Vintage/Penguin Random House
ISBN 9780143770657

 

Book Review: Billy Bird, by Emma Neale

“…If sex can accidentally make something as wild, complex, erratic, dogged, miraculous, sensitive, vulnerable, solid, unaware, bizarre, intractable, awful and joyful as a human child, why, in a specific instance, couldn’t it be said to help make love?”

cv_billy_birdThis is the voice of somebody who understands children, and parenthood. Billy Bird is a magnificent book. It’s sad, and happy, and funny, and brutal – and paradigm-breaking. As you will already know if you have read the blurb, or indeed the title: Billy is becoming a bird. He doesn’t want to be a bird, he is starting to behave as one would, for hours sometimes. This story is about how a family operates emotionally – and how important communication is when it is time to heal.

This is the point where I wonder – how much of a spoiler is it to say somebody significant dies? I think I can say that, and possibly that that somebody is a child. Because I get a bit sensitive around the death of a child, so if this is something you do not like to read about, here is your warning. But yet. Even if you do, and it triggers, this book may be the book that starts your healing. So don’t be shy of it. I will go just one step further and say: this is not a murder mystery. But you could probably tell that from the marked lack of black and red on the cover.

So this happens, and nothing changes. Well, not quite. Everything changes. But it takes awhile for their emotional power to be understood by our protagonists, who as we start driving towards the solution, are Billy, aged 8 or so, and his mum Iris and dad Liam. Iris’s voice: “Maybe…death had turned up her sensitivity to these things: The daily news-alarms of storms, acidic seas, dwindling species, drought, energy wars, religious wars, civil wars, avenging blood with blood, as if that ever brought the dead back…This sense of the world on the precipice…was it worse than it had ever been, or was she losing her own equilibrium?”

After events in the novel come to a head, the family finds a safe space to talk, with a Psychologist and her nurse. Billy is wondering about his dad “…if he’d be like that when he was a man. Did he have to be? What if you didn’t want to be like your mum or your dad? Was there some third person he could be?” The space created by his mum and dad’s non-communication fills with a pile of worries, big and small; and a lot of bird-feelings for Billy.

I’ve used a lot of quotes in this review, because there were so many times when I thought ‘Exactly!’ and ‘man how can I explain what this writing does to you.’ Writing this wonderful is unusual and rare, though it sometimes happens when poets turn to prose. There are sections of the novel in verse – the initial sex scene, ingeniously –and this adds an otherworldly brilliance to the writing.

I know of Emma Neale as an excellent editor: now I am going to go back and read everything else Emma Neale has written. I cannot recommend this book highly enough. Like all truly good books, it fills you with empathy, and a sense of joy in words and in life. I hope this makes it onto the longlist for the Acorn Foundation Literary Award.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

Billy Bird
by Emma Neale
Published by Vintage NZ
ISBN 9780143770053

Book Review: All Day at the Movies, by Fiona Kidman

cv_all_day_at_the_moviesAvailable now in bookshops nationwide.

I can honestly say that this is one of the best books I have ever read.  I began to read it on a Sunday morning around 11:30 and finished it at 7:48 the same evening. I couldn’t put it down.

Dame Fiona Kidman has captured the New Zealand I grew up in, her words drawing pictures of the way we lived, the issues we faced and the people who accompanied us on our journeys as we grew. She does this so thoroughly, it was as though I was looking at a box of photographs dug out from the back of a closet. Dealing as it does with the members of one family, it never becomes mired in sentimentality, nor does it veer off into pathos.

Many readers of an age to remember the issues the characters face will find feelings being stirred that were perhaps long buried or forgotten, such is the reality evoked by Kidman’s writing. Life could be harsh for those who were vulnerable, (it still is of course) and society pretended to live by a stricter moral code than is followed today. All members of the family portrayed in the book live within the constraints of the same society, yet all are affected in different ways. The roads they travel are as random and arbitrary as most of ours turn out to be and we can identify with them because of this, our interest held by the very uncertainty of their destinations.

At the same time, the familiarity, the beautiful familiarity, of their lives holds us in thrall. Introduced to the mother at the beginning of the book we follow her children as they deal with the circumstances they encounter. The siblings take different paths, growing apart due not only to distance but also to life experiences. Their reactions to what happens to them are entirely believable, and I found myself identifying with them often, so skilfully are they drawn.

The book is 320 pages in total and so perfectly written, the reader comes to the end of them satisfied with the final glimpses we are given of the characters and their fortunes, while still carrying a lingering sense of loss.

Reviewed by Lesley Vlietstra

 All Day at the Movies
by Fiona Kidman
Published by Vintage NZ (PRH)
ISBN 9781775538905

 

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