The uses of memory, Louise O’Brien

Little Moon 
Emma Neale
Vintage, $24.95,
ISBN 1869414756

Little Moon, Emma Neale’s second novel, following the success of Night Swimming in 1998, is an account of the troubled childhood and adolescence of a young woman growing up in New Zealand. Central to Julie’s experiences and memories is the complex set of interactions between herself, her mother, and her stepfather. The writing is at its nuanced and subtle best when describing this triangular relationship. Julie’s perception of her mother’s sexual and emotional need prompts a response somewhere between compassion and contempt, while her certainty that her stepfather “doesn’t like me” is both adolescently defensive and maturely observed. Neale reads and writes body
language well, astutely detailing “that other language of shoulders, hands, heads turned or not turned, the posture
as someone leaves the room, the volume with which they close the door.”

What’s most interesting about the novel, though, is also what distinguishes it from the many other New Zealand novels which share this plot: from the early work of Elizabeth Knox to Emily Perkins’ latest novel, The New Girl. Little Moon describes and explores the construction of character and identity, and their links with history and memory. Julie introduces and defines herself as a product of her past in the very first line of the novel: “I was the girl who killed her brother.” That childhood accident shapes the way she sees herself, shapes the way others see her, and shapes the way she interprets the world: “I built myself around this fact.” The narrative describes the way in which Julie’s history – this traumatic event and its aftermath – as it’s caught and fixed by her memories, produces her character. Indeed, she dates her entire existence from her brother’s birth, when her “life springs into life.”

Except that it isn’t “fact” which she builds herself around, but her memory of fact. The narrative explores the very tenuous connection between memory and history, between what really happened and how we remember it happening. The act of remembering isn’t located so much within a metaphor of history (as the retrieval of fact), but within one of Heaneyesque archaeology – an archaeology of the self – in which fragmentation, gaps and speculation are inherent: “we build up fallen civilisations from pelvic bones, from shattered vials, from scraps of textile and garland leaves in funeral wreaths, from solitary threads of gold that have slipped between lead Roman coffins.” As fictional autobiography, then, Little Moon can better trace its lineage to Janet Frame’s To the Is-Land, “with its mixture of fact and truths and memories of truths” in representing identity. The interpretive processes of memory – selection, ordering, emphasis – produce history in the novel and thus, in turn, produce identity, so that Julie’s image for herself after her brother’s death comes to stand equally for her memories of her brother’s death and its aftermath: “I was shaken, turned upside down, cut glass inside a kaleidoscope twisted into new distortions. Time was disarrayed, unsettled.”

The most awkward aspect of the novel is Julie’s ongoing fantasy of Little Moon, her nickname for the brother whose death so haunts her. As she grows up, she sees him, talks to him, imagines him, confides in him: a one-sided relationship represented in terms both clichéd and twee: “I knew it was his soul I could see.” But that fantasy fits interestingly with the themes of the novel, given that Julie imagines his identity completely in absentia, without the benefit either of memory or history, an identity which is a further tool for her imagining of herself.

These ideas become progressively more layered through the form of the narrative, as a retrospective and first person account. Julie, as narrator, represents both history and identity in the light of the present, where what comes after shapes what came before, or at least shapes what and how she remembers what came before: “Then is stained by now, now is stained by then.” Interestingly and significantly, the actual moment of the present, when the narrative moves from recounting the past to describing the present, is difficult to identify. Memories of childhood emotions are overlaid, juxtaposed, merged and compared with emotions reconstructed in the light of later information, later insight; and all versions of the past are given equal weight, equal truth-value. Yet, despite this emphasis on the multiple possible versions of the past, the role of the narrator in producing the past is also at times disingenuously denied in the novel. While in the very act of making herself for her reader, Julie tells us that “once you’ve opened up your past, another version of self-defence is lost. You are less the person you want yourself to be, more what you have been made.”

The narrative is torn between a deterministic view of history as inescapably determining identity, and a more hopeful view in which history and identity are fluid, and the self has agency in determining identity, through the act of representing history. Because we’re also told that Julie’s self is not immutable: after a revelatory discussion with her mother, Julie is described as a “self reset like a broken bone that has healed itself in a skewed new shape, still showing evidence of the break.” It’s the complex intersection between these ideas that the novel doesn’t develop sufficiently; it establishes these ideas, in paradox and in conflict with each other, and then fails to resolve them. Because “if memories make a person”, and memories both precede identity and construct a narrative of identity through a complex interpretive process from the larger set of historical facts, what constructs memory?

The concluding revelations of Little Moon extend the possibilities of this interpretation of the novel’s concerns, in that they offer the potential for the reshaping and reconstruction both of history and of identity, a potential implicit since the use of the past tense in the novel’s opening line. It’s unlikely, though, that this novel will prompt any similar reconsideration of either the history or the identity of New Zealand literature: it doesn’t do enough to disrupt the established narrative of a somewhat clichéd genre of New Zealand writing.


Louise O’Brien teaches in the School of English, Film and Theatre at Victoria University of Wellington.


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