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 Light on the Water by Olga Lorenzo

In the months before her arrest, Anne Baxter had many hours to think about her future.

Ligt on Water Olga LorenzoWith this riveting opening, Olga Lorenzo begins a tale of woe, of a woman whose only ambition has been to love and nurture her own children, someone who had survived a harsh upbringing by a mentally unstable mother, whose marriage to a prominent barrister ended because he was unable to give her the emotional support she needed, and whose second child was born with a significant disability. The disappearance of this child, her younger daughter Aida, on an overnight bush walk in a remote coastal area of Victoria is the inciting incident for the novel: the trigger for Anne’s grief, her incarceration, her sense of guilt and the judgement of many among the community and remand centre inmates who mete out ongoing punishment.

On many levels this is a tough book to read. Despite the difficulties of her upbringing and her experience of every mother’s worst nightmare, the awful loss of her child, Anne isn’t the most sympathetic of characters. She displays something which, as I noted in an earlier review, is missing from characters in Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things: the learned helplessness of the victim, the utter mind-stultifying and body-disabling passivity of those who have discovered from a very early age that it’s no use fighting; that the opposition, be it an abusive parent, a judgemental waitress, a drunk outside an airport or a fellow prisoner, is more powerful and will prevail; that survival depends on “copping it sweet”.

It’s a psychologically astute portrayal, but it can also make the reader deeply uncomfortable. For survivors of abuse, it can trigger recognition and empathy for the weakest parts of ourselves, but not necessarily compassion. My own reaction was principally one of anger. I found myself wanting to shake Anne, to say, “Wake up to yourself. Do something. Act. Respond. Fight back. Don’t be such an idiot! Think.” That’s not to say Anne is totally passive: the times she does respond had me cheering, such as when she puts her hypocritical neighbour in her place. But for the most part I found her passivity disturbing, as it dramatised, as it were, the parts of myself that fill me with self-loathing.

Counteracting the toughness of this emotional response is the pleasure derived from the novel’s use of language. Lorenzo is a teacher of creative writing and it shows. Running through the text are images drawn from nature: fish, insects, the coastal tides and the weather. At times the beauty of these images counterbalance the horror of Anne’s experiences; at other times, they echo them dispassionately or reinforce them:

Life has picked her up and carried her away on its own tide, lapping her up in its various eddies, disgorging her on these dangerous shores. (155)

Anne’s contemplation of the fish in her home aquarium stimulates reflection on her own passivity:

Is there something in her that demands that she not be comforted and helped? She’s sure there’s a pecking order among human, just as there is among her mollies, who vie for supremacy the minute two are put together in the aquarium. So does she need to have her fins shredded and her eyes picked out to remind her of her rightful place in the scheme of things? (75)

There is also a philosophical thread in the novel, an insistence that, no matter what, suffering can be endured and will be overcome. At times, this lifts the narrative into a paeon to women’s work, the work of mothering, of nurturing and enduring. Anne comes to remember with fondness the bliss of everyday, ordinary activities associated with motherhood and caring for a family:

[S]he had loved washing day, the satisfaction of the clean smells emanating from the laundry, and then the calisthenics of bending and lifting and wrestling everything onto the clothesline. She had loved the breeze catching her family’s sheets and making them billow, as if they were setting off to new lands. She revelled in the sunshine trapped in the clothes when they were brought indoors. She had felt this was a way to love her family – folding their socks and t-shirts and underpants felt akin to stroking each person. (325)

This satisfaction is made all the more remarkable for the fact that women come to the – often thankless – tasks of domestic life and child-rearing unprepared:

No one trains them, explains the countless, simple lessons mothers give their children every day. The patience required. The mind-numbing patience. (262)

There are many more aspects of this book to praise: Lorenzo’s ear for Australian idiom and depiction of class differences; her deft thumbnail sketches of incidental characters that make these people come alive on the page; her use of powerful verbs; her insights into psychology and character; her sometimes sympathetic, sometimes harsh, portrayal of different types of families; as well as her skill in portraying a range of difficult and subtle human emotions:

Looking out over the water, life at that moment seemed sad and sweet and as fleeting as the day.

This was something she felt sometimes as a child – a wistfulness, but also a tentative inkling of future possibility, of life renewed and waiting, and of the transience of her own being. (242)

Despite the toughness of the reading experience, despite the harshness and horror of much of what is portrayed, Lorenzo leaves the reader with a sense that everything will be okay.

~

Author: Olga Lorenzo
Title: The Light on the Water
Publisher and date: Allen & Unwin, 2016
ISBN: 9781925266542

This review forms part of my 2016 Australian Women Writers and Aussie Author Challenge. Thanks to Allen & Unwin for providing a review copy.

More meditation than murder: Sorry by Gail Jones

sorry-jones2Sorry is an unsatisfying book.

After seeing Kevin Rennie’s glowing review earlier this year, I had expectations. I loved Jones’ Dreams of Speaking, the first book I finished for 2012. I’ve heard great things about Five Bells. Sixty Lights has been working its way up my “to be read” pile. Then I was caught at my mum’s house last week without a book to read and saw Sorry on her bookshelf. I’d picked it up at a Lifeline fair and passed it on to her months ago. It seemed the perfect bookend for the year.

Yet I found myself struggling to concentrate and – I admit it – counting the pages to the chapter end.

It’s not the density of the language, though Rennie is right to point out that the book is peppered with old-fashioned phrases. I love Jones’ prose. I relish in her love of words, her passion for books and Shakespeare. The problem was the structure.

If I’d kept in mind as I read that it is “a bit of a murder mystery”, as Rennie calls it, I might’ve been more engaged. But I found little of the sense of urgency or curiosity I associate with that genre. Jones invites her readers into her tale with a graphic, disturbing opening only to abandon them, to let the narrative drift. It drifts across the Northern Territory in the war years of the early 1940s, across the lives of a displaced English couple and their run-wild child, the slow disappointments and cruelty of the anthropologist father and disintegration of his Shakespeare-obsessed wife, the child’s friendships with a succession of Aboriginal companions and a deaf-mute son of a neighbour. The novel gathers momentum with the Japanese bombing of Broome and comes to a denouement with the revelations of the truth behind the novel’s opening.

It is a good – perhaps even great – book. A book, Rennie says, that every Australian should read. But I was left… unsatisfied. The book is “about” things, important and interesting issues. It’s a meditation on language, reading and communication, on intimacy, race relations, prejudice, failure and forgiveness. With such noble themes, it should have moved me more. But what it’s not is the kind of tale I really like, a book that makes me feel intensely, that sweeps me away on a flood of emotion, as well as thought and imagination, and leaves me stranded and exhausted – and changed – at the end.

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