Dying in the First Person by Nike Sulway – a tale of life, love and hope

Dying in the First Person Nkie SulwayAfter finishing Dying in the First Person by Nike Sulway, I felt as I did after reading Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things. I immediately wanted to talk to someone who had read the book. I wanted to share its insights about love and language, about the near-impossibility of finding the words to express the truth about human existence, our hopes and fears, dreams and desires.

Dying in the First Person is about adult twin brothers who, as children, created a world with a language of its own: Nahum. In this world, single men live on individual islands. At an appointed time, a son appears, brought by the sea or by a bird, and once the boy is grown, the man sails away, because the island cannot carry the burden of more than one man’s heart. With this imaginative world as a backdrop, Sulway weaves a tale of love and loss, of escaping and yearning, of remembering and deliberate forgetting. As a teenager, one of the twins, Morgan, grows wild. He leaves the confines of the boys’ suburban life with their bookseller mother, their father having died in circumstances that the story is slow to reveal. The other twin, Samuel, stays with the mother, and is only reconciled with his estranged brother years later through writing: he translates stories that he receives from Morgan, now based in the Netherlands. These stories, written in Nahum, earn Morgan an international following before his sudden death.

Into Samuel’s world steps Ana, his brother’s one-time lover, whom he lets stay in the cabin he built for his brother on his property in the subtropical Queensland bush. Samuel is challenged by this interloper and also by the mysterious markings in Morgan’s final work, eighteen new letters or words that appear to have no referent in the world he and his brother created. At the same time, he discovers his book-loving and unconventional mother is ill and, as her illness progresses, her ability to distinguish between him and his brother in her memories deteriorates.

Dying in the First Person is fable-like in its resonance, both emotionally and aesthetically. There is much to ponder on; particularly provocative are hints about the erasure of women’s identity and writing, as well as the complexities of writing from an “other” gendered position. While much of the story’s focus is on language, its subjects are life, love and the secrets and inadequacies that keep us, as individuals, apart from our loved ones. The story is about human faults, failings and frailties; it’s also about hope. Reading it, I was reminded of a prayer that helped me through a challenging time in my relationship: “Help me see this person as they really are, not who I want them to be, and not who I fear they might be.” In this novel, through language, through love and loss and hope, Sulway points a way.

~

Author: Nike Sulway

Title: Dying in the First Person
Publisher: Transit Lounge
ISBN: 978-0-9943958-3-2
Date of Publication: 01/05/16

This review forms part of my Australian Women Writers Challenge. My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

Out of the Ice by Ann Turner

imageAnn Turner’s second novel, Out of the Ice, starts with penguins. Don’t be put off. This isn’t a nerdy book. It does have environmental themes and it is set in one of the most fantastic and little-known parts of the globe – Antarctica; but it’s also an exploration of the life of a twice-divorced late-thirties woman who’s happy to set her own agenda. “Fearless”, a friend describes her; “reckless”, I was saying at more than one point in the book – but I didn’t mind that one bit.

Laura Alvarado has a double doctorate, a passion for cetaceans (whales and dolphins, etc.), and a healthy thirst for alcohol and adventure. She is typical of the misfits and mavericks who are attracted to life in one of the harshest environments on the planet. Having spent a long, dark winter as a researcher, she’s a bit “toasty”: a term she and her colleagues use to describe a loosening of one’s grip on reality caused by the harsh conditions. Although teamwork is vital and the base’s activities are designed to stop people from isolating, there’s plenty of time and opportunity for introspection and reflection, and sometimes things aren’t what they seem – or are they?

Laura has had lots to reflect on: two failed marriages, the first under tragic circumstances; being frozen out of her career as an academic after she acted as a whistleblower over dubious research findings of her superiors; and a fractious relationship with her ethnically Spanish mother and absent, fellow-academic father. As spring approaches, she is recruited to go to an old whaling town, Fredelighavn, on South Safety Island. The town was decommissioned decades before and is now in an Exclusion Zone to protect its wildlife, including colonies of Adele penguins. Established by Norwegians, it was a local centre of the brutal whaling industry in the early part of the twentieth century, and still has many of the buildings and facilities from that time. Laura and her partner are supposed to survey the township and environs to see if it should become a museum for tourists but, at the last minute, the partner falls ill, and she must begin the task alone. Her base is to be an all-male British research facility located not far from the town, and her welcome there is little short of hostile. Are the British merely protective of their research, or is there something more at play?

Out of the Ice sweeps the reader into larger-than-life events that span three continents and sees Laura travelling from Antarctica, to Nantucket (where the founders of the Fredelighavn spent the Northern Summer), to Venice; in each location, Turner creates scenes in vivid and loving detail. I read the novel from start to finish in a day, but was intrigued enough by the initial setting to stop and look up South Safety Island on the internet, convinced I’d see photographs of the colourfully-painted houses standing out from the white ice, the hulking wrecks of whaling ships, the rusting fuel containers and “flencing” sheds – where the whale meat is stripped from the bone. (Yes, there is some jargon in the book, but it’s seamlessly explained.) I didn’t find it, and I assume the location is a product of the author’s imagination, but it feels like a real place to me now – that’s how well Turner’s prose brings it to life.

I do have a few quibbles with the story, mostly to do with some lack of plausibility: Laura’s boss, an ex-detective and current Station Leader, suddenly has time to go off investigating; an environmentalist concerned about global warming doesn’t have even a twinge of guilt over taking multiple flights across the globe at a moment’s notice; but, for the most part, the quibbles were very minor (any elaboration would necessitate spoilers). The narrative is so engrossing and the settings so fascinating that I was happy to suspend my disbelief.

Out of the Ice is sure to please fans of Ann Turner’s first novel, The Lost Swimmer, and deserves to attract many more readers. It’s an excellent, well-written, fast-paced read.

~

Title: Out of the Ice
Author: Ann Turner
Publisher: Simon and Schuster Australia
Date: June 2016
ISBN: 9781925030891

This review forms part of my Australian Women Writers and Aussie Author Challenges. My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

I For Isobel by Amy Witting

I For Isobel WittingConfession: Amy Witting’s I For Isobel (1989) has been on my shelf for ages and is the first work of hers I’ve read.

The novel records a decade in the life of Isobel Callaghan, from unhappy nine to unfulfilled 19. Isobel is a loner, someone who struggles to discern the rules other people live by; she always feels offside, “like being a spy in a foreign country having to pass for a native” (116). As a child, she is treated with barely disguised contempt and hostility by her mother, who favours her sister Margaret; she is bullied at school for being bright; she is haunted by her religious education, her seeming inability to be “good”, as well as her real and imagined misdemeanours.

Orphaned at 16, she goes out in the world to earn her living, finding work as a typist and German translator. She resides first at a boarding house, before taking her own room. Her great love is books – and books by Dead White Males comprise the bulk of her reading: Trollope, Dickens, Byron and, later, Dostoevsky, Auden and Eliot.

Isobel loves words, words to describe the people she meets, the places she goes in mid-twentieth-century Sydney. Words connect her to others, to the students she befriends in a Glebe cafe, to Frank the communist outsider where she works; they are also what separates her. Words are weapons to hurt and be hurt, as well as a balm to cure her loneliness; an oppressor and a liberator. Her mind is a “word factory” which never ceases production.

Eyes open, back to the ceiling: ornate plaster, baskets of flowers linked by swags of ribbon, a stain in one corner, yellow, like… sunshine? butter? honey? paler than pumpkin, darker than pee. Dirty old daylight, if there was a word.

There are words. Words we have plenty of, nasty little buzzing insects that they are. Awake two minutes and the word factory is at it already. And you at the loom, zoom, zoom.

It was going to be a bad day. (128)

Isobel isn’t always likeable as a protagonist: she is too passive; she is a “vacuum” that words rush to fill, a listener, a spectator of life rather than a participant. Her behaviour isn’t always admirable, but it is understandable; she is the embodiment of the phrase, “hurt people hurt people”.

The loosely linked chapters of I For Isobel chronicle Isobel’s travails as she struggles to come to terms with her identity, with her dishonesty (she is a “born liar”), with the half-buried hurts from childhood and misunderstandings that keep her yearning and, for most of the book, unfulfilled. At one moment she glimpses her place as the inheritor of a long line of genes that stretch back into history; as she looks in the mirror, hating her face because it reminds her of her mother, she has an epiphany:

the face shaped and softened with the beginning of a laugh because she was thinking those features weren’t her mother’s; she had had the tenancy of them for fifty years but they had been on the go for generations; that nose had taken snuff, sniffed at pomanders, plague posies, smelling salts, rose hip, orris root – things she had never smelt and never would – as well as honeysuckle, gas leaks and lavender… (137).

The book reaches a gentle crescendo when Isobel returns to the suburb she grew up in and comes face to face with an old foe. The encounter reduces her – and me – to tears. Left sobbing for the sorrow of having grown up in a family that failed her, the only comfort she receives is from the rock against which she rests her cheek, “as rough as a cat’s tongue and unyielding”.

I For Isobel may be the first of Amy Witting’s books I’ve read, but it won’t be the last.

~

This review forms part of my 2016 Australian Women Writers Challenge and Aussie Author Challenge. It’s also part of an effort I wish to make to read more Australian classics.

~

Author: Amy Witting
Title: I For Isobel
Publisher: Penguin
Date and place: Ringwood, Vic. 1989
ISBN: 0 14 012624 4

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