New Zealand fiction reviewed by Trevor Moore
The New Ships, Kate Duignan, 2018, Victoria University Press, ISBN 978-1-77656-188-9, 357pp
Melt, Jeff Murray, 2019, Mary Egan Publishing, ISBN 978-0-473-47053-1, 289pp
Decline and Fall on Savage Street, 2017, Fiona Farrell, Penguin Random House NZ, ISBN 978-0-14-377062-6, 354pp
I am the last person to profess to any expertise in comparative fiction across countries. An upbringing based on English (and I mean English rather than British) literature is a hard yoke to shake off. I am in awe of a woman like Ann Morgan whose “Reading the World: Confessions of a Literary Explorer” tells of her reading of a work of fiction from each of the world’s 196 or so countries. The research that turns up Bhutan author Kunzang Choden’s “The Circle of Karma” or “Spirits’ Tides” by Susan Kloulechad from Palau is more research than I would have the patience for. But when I visit a place – whether a country or a town – I like to look for a book or two by a local writer.
A few weeks ago, I found it necessary to visit Christchurch for a few days (to assist in Australia’s balance of payments, i.e. to earn some money) and I was lucky enough to have a little time to wander around this earthquake-ravaged city. I had been once before prior to the 2011 earthquake but had little memory of the city. But I am not here to tell the story of the earthquake and of Christchurch’s remarkable recovery. I set about seeing whether there was an interesting-looking independent bookshop there. I was lucky. I found Scorpio Books (120 Hereford Street, Christchurch CBD) and on entering its hallowed portals determined to seek out the New Zealand fiction section.
Now, like most men, I do not read instructions and I do not ask for directions but in this case, I made an exception. I strode up to the counter where I was greeted by a young woman festooned with more piercings than a person could count without being ungentlemanly. She took me to the appropriate section and, because her outward appearance suggested an approach to life somewhat different to my own, I asked her for recommendations. She suggested one book that she had read and one that she hadn’t and pointed to a third that was set in Christchurch. I took her recommendations and it is possible, but by no means certain, that I am the better man in consequence. It’s possible that I would be an even better man with a different set of recommendations; but that II cannot say.
Ann Morgan’s choice to represent New Zealand in her “Reading the world” list is “Once Were Warriors” by Alan Duff (Vintage, 1995). Perhaps I should have had the foresight to have looked for this; I have not read it but, in homage to Ann Morgan, I probably should do so. The three books I carried off with me have nothing in common in terms of subject matter. “The New Ships” and “Decline and Fall on Savage Street” are perhaps the better written but “Melt” is the most thought-provoking.
“Melt” is set in 2048 against a backdrop of the effects of climate change. The Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty (known as the Madrid Protocol) provides for the protection of Antarctica as the last great wilderness on earth. In Murray’s “Melt” we see the big three powers (the US, China and India) carving up Antarctica and despoiling it in the process. New Zealand in 2048, gateway to the melting continent, is thrust into the centre of the climate crises. Whatever its literary shortcomings, the book is a chilling assessment of the possible consequences of today’s failures in leadership – especially in this country and by both the major parties – to tackle an existential crisis. Murray says of 2048 “if we wanted things to have been different, we should have addressed warming thirty years ago”. Later in the book he casts a dubious eye on the current fad for sustainability as a factor in our approach to climate change. He says, “sustainability has degenerated into the economic idea of consuming on the margin of disaster”. Murray’s day job is as a project manager and this is his first novel. It is worth reading but not worth going out of your way to read, not because it is not a good book but because Murray is laboured in his introduction on his characters and the narrative sometimes lacks credibility in the construction of his characters.
Fiona Farrell’s “Decline and Fall on Savage Street”, on the other hand, is written by a woman with an expensive literary history. This is a story about a house. We follow the story of the house from its building to its destruction in the 2011 earthquake. Over its life the house is inhabited by a variety of characters not all of whom are equally likeable. Each chapter starts with an incomplete sentence which I found weird until I learned to ignore it. So, for example, chapter 8 starts “… left my tools here’ he says, standing awkwardly, cap crushed in his hands, on the wash house step.” The last sentence of chapter 7 is “We need to raise …”. You could get wrapped up in these non-sequiturs if you chose to and I am still not sure what the device is designed to achieve. Every few chapters there is an interlude that deals with an eel. This may sound odd (and it is) but Farrell is trying to contrast the pace of human change with the pace of change for an eel. In spite of its peculiarities I enjoyed this book, it is well-written, and the storyline is strong.
The last one in the trio is Kate Duignan’s “The New Ships” and I have saved the best til last. Apparently, Duignan’s last novel was published in 2001 so one could not accuse this woman of being prolific. The main character is Peter Collins who is bereft after the death of his wife. As he struggles to understand how his life has led him to the present, he is forced to recall some events from his past that he might rather have left undisturbed in his memory. The book is set in Wellington after the fall of the twin towers and traverses London, Europe and India. There are more threads to this book than there are in a good piece of cloth but the weft and warp of the story work well. This is a book worth looking out for.
 I had never heard of Palau – at least not consciously – but Ann Morgan says “this country of around 21,000 people spread over 250 islands, 500 miles east of the Philippines distinguished itself as the most difficult Pacific island nation to find books from.”