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.

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On Art and Motherhood: or, this is not a romance – The Steele Diaries by Wendy James

wendy-james-steele-diariesThe Steele Diaries, Wendy James’ second novel, originally published in 2008, has recently been re-released as an ebook by Momentum. It’s a novel I’ve looked forward to reading since I discovered a paperback copy on my local library’s discard table. I’d enjoyed James’ The Mistake when I read it as part of the AWW challenge last year and I was hoping for another compulsive read.

This novel didn’t disappoint, but it was different from what I’d anticipated. The Steele Diaries takes a more considered approach than The Mistake, and it wasn’t till halfway through that I felt compelled to keep on turning pages. Loosely, it covers the same territory: family drama – or “Suburban Noir” – with the possibility of crime. In The Steele Diaries, the story unfolds at a gentler pace and has a more literary feel than The Mistake. In the end, however, it packs a similar punch and is arguably even more thought-provoking.

According to James, who was interviewed by Kirsten Krauth last year, the novel was inspired by “stories of various artists’ and writers’ lives — in particular Joy Hester, Sunday Reed, Sylvia Plath, Vanessa Bell, [and] Angelica Garnett — and their differing experiences of motherhood and childhood”. There’s no glossy, sentimentalising of motherhood here; rather, the depiction of the fraught nature of disappointed dreams and imperfect relationships makes for, at times, uncomfortable and confronting reading.

The drama revolves around three women: Ruth, a middle-aged doctor who has recently lost her father; Zelda, Ruth’s mother, an illustrator of children’s books; and Annie, acclaimed artist, Zelda’s mother. It weaves first person narratives from Ruth and Zelda – Zelda’s section being quite literally a “diary” – with a brief account of a time in Annie’s life, as imagined by Zelda.

While depicting the complex and painful relationships between these mothers and daughters, the story dramatises the pressures which childbearing places on a woman’s creativity, sense of autonomy and mental health. It draws on themes familiar to folk and “fairy” tales, the terror of abandonment and the hinted possibility of a mother’s indifference to her child, an indifference which borders on brutality. Such unsafe – even grotesque – preoccupations are reflected in the Art described in the novel, both in Annie’s paintings and Zelda’s wood-block illustrations, as well as in the narrative. Readers are positioned as eavesdroppers or voyeurs on these women’s private lives, a narrative strategy which creates a self-reflexive meditation on Art as a vehicle for telling unpalatable truths, particularly about women’s “failures” to live up to their own and others’ expectations. In portraying these failures, the story both stretches and tests our capacity to respond with sympathy.

Steele-Diaries_ebookGiven the weight of the book’s themes, you’d have to wonder about the covers, both the original – with its face of a beautiful, carefully coiffed woman floating over an Outback scene – and the more recent offering from Momentum, with coy lovers kissing under an umbrella. Both are seriously misleading.

James had something interesting to say to Krauth about book covers and marketing mistakes:

So many novels by women — especially those writing about domestic life — are given covers that don’t quite match the content. My first two novels — one about an infanticide, the other about art and motherhood — were marketed as romances. This misrepresentation certainly doesn’t help establish a readership.

Whatever genre you might call The Steele Diaries, it’s not a romance. Momentum book designers, what were you thinking?

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This review counts towards Australian Literature Month hosted Kim at Reading Matters (who will donate 50p to the Australian Literacy Foundation for every review of an Australian book during April) as well as Australian Women Writers Challenge 2013.

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