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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The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood

Halfway through reading Charlotte Wood’s new novel, The Natural Way of Things, I felt compelled to post about it on Facebook and Twitter.

Reading The Natural Way of Things

Such is the power of this book that after I finished it, immediately I searched for someone to discuss it with. I rang a friend who had been to the book launch on Monday night, hoping she might have read it already. She was only a few chapters in, but she told me a friend of hers, after finishing it, had rolled up in a ball on the floor and wept.

I wanted to weep while reading this book. I felt like there was a lifetime of tears – behind my rage – waiting to be shed. But I didn’t cry and I think I know why.

This brilliant, beautifully written, terrible fable of our times was inspired when Wood heard about a group of girls/women who had been rounded up and drugged, and carted off to a decommissioned prison at Hay in Western New South Wales in the 1960s. Instead of setting her story back then, as Wood told Susan Wyndham in a recent interview, she decided to create a near-future dystopia. To populate her story, Wood drew from every possible sex scandal she had come across in the media, stories of women who had been depicted as in some way having “asked for it”. Among the group of ten women Wood depicts, there are figures of diverse class, ethnicities, educational backgrounds and personalities, many of whom bear similarities to actual historical figures. Some of these become fully realised characters in their own right, given life via exquisite prose.

Two such characters, Verla and Yolanda, are given points of view in the narrative. Verla is the educated former mistress of a politician who denied having “relations” with her; Yolanda is a beauty from a working-class background whose boyfriend dumped her after she was gang raped by a group of footballers. Such is Wood’s mastery of narrative that it took me a while to realise Verla’s story is told in the present tense, Yolanda’s in the past – so seamless are the transitions.

Throughout the story, Wood’s descriptive power is stunning. She describes the violence wielded by the girls’ warden, Boncer, in ironic terms as having the ease and fluidity, if not the beauty, of ballet:

[S]he didn’t see the man’s swift, balletic leap – impossibly pretty and light across the gravel – and the leather-covered baton in his hand coming whack over the side of her jaw.

A few paragraphs later, she extends the picture created with a vivid, terrible simile:

Turning his brown leather stick in his hands, its hard, lumpy stitched seams like a botched wound. Like a scar that would make worse ones. (25)

One of Wood’s techniques I particularly noted was her use of adjectives to add sound, texture, movement and atmosphere to her descriptions: “skittering footsteps”, “thickening bush”, “busy fingers” and “noisy silence” are a few examples chosen at random; while many others form powerful triplets, such as “slow, long-bodied wasps” and an ice-chest with a “hoary galvanised-metal face”.

Throughout the story Wood shows her mastery of figurative language, often drawing from domestic situations to create beautiful, fresh and deceptively simple images:

A flock of white cockatoos arrived, landing noisily down on the flat, the white line of them billowing and settling like a thrown bedsheet. (199)

A pleat of blue has opened up in the clouds. (249)

With such language, a terrible tale is wrought. The girls in the story suffer, endure, survive, collapse under pressure and revive – or not, each in their own way.

What the story didn’t do was something which from the outset I had unconsciously expected it would: depict from the inside the ultimate psychic degradation of abused women; that is, the learned helplessness and hopelessness of internalised misogyny, the self-hatred and self-abuse that leads to suicidal ideation and self-harm, that makes women believe they deserve whatever bad things happen to them. While girls with such attitudes are portrayed in the story, they remain somewhat at a distance, seen through the eyes of the point-of-view characters. Both Yolanda and Verla are far more empowered. Even the crisis Verla suffers towards the climax of the book isn’t one of self-worth or self-doubt; she and Yolanda are women whose sense of agency and ability to withstand is not seriously threatened – even as their physical survival isn’t assured. For me, there is a third, silent, untold narrative that haunts the book: the woman whose sense of self-worth doesn’t survive.

It’s that narrative, I think, that would have summoned my tears, but perhaps it’s just as well Wood didn’t write it. I might never have stopped crying.

I’d be stunned and disappointed if The Natural Way if Things isn’t shortlisted for both the Miles Franklin Award and The Stella Prize.

~

Author: Charlotte Wood
Title: The Natural Order of things
Publisher: Allen & Unwin
Date: October 2015
ISBN: 9781760111236

This review forms part of my contribution to the 2015 Australian Women Writers Challenge and the Aussie Author Challenge. A review copy was kindly supplied to me by the publisher.

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