On an Island, with Consequences Dire
Kelly Ana Morey
A newspaper columnist of the cantankerous-old-bastard variety lies in his hospital bed, delirious with pain. As nurses fuss over him, he dreams his wife is asking him how much he loved her, on a scale of one to 10. “Zero! Zero, you cow!” he shouts. Later, he berates a group of Christians for having the temerity to sing hymns in the hospital dayroom, and is berated in his turn by a hospital cleaner who believes that “only nosy people read the paper”.
“Animals”, the opening piece in Grimshaw’s short story collection, contains all the elements that make Opportunity such an outstandingly good read: a remorseless wit, superb use of dialogue, a brooding, edgy atmosphere and a fascination with the undercurrents in human relationships. Many of the stories here have a feverish, almost hallucinatory sense of danger, of a predator at the gate – the stalker neighbour, the ex with a secret, the sinister new boyfriend.
In the title story – a sensationally malevolent little yarn – a young woman finds a way to punish her former flatmate for an act of cruelty committed many years earlier, while “Him” describes the chilling outcome to a woman’s flirtation with another parent. In “Plane Sailing”, a dentist finds herself caught in a power cut with her patient, a TV newsreader with an overly matey onscreen persona ( John Campbell, surely). “Less is more,” she tells him, her hand pressing a tissue to his bleeding lip, in the dark. “Less is more.” It’s a phrase that also serves to describe Grimshaw’s own spare, stripped-back style.
In my favourite story, “Daughters”, a feckless rich girl seeks sanctuary with her hated stepmother. The result is this deliciously waspish exchange:
She stared at me. Then she drummed her fingers on the table and said, “So. Fatty boomsticks. You want a job?”
“In a brothel? No thanks.”
“Administration,” she said smoothly. “Strictly no contact work. Managing the girls.”
I thought about it. I was curious. “Yeah, go on then. When and where?”
“You come with me. Tomorrow.” She pulled her long black hair away from her eyes. There were rich, raisiny shadows under her eyes. Her eyes were black-lined and almond-shaped, in the painted face. I looked at her: my Egyptian stepmummy, with her hating eyes.
“And now I must go and watch Antiques Weekly,” she announced, and swept from the room. I heard the fizz and crackle of the TV. Her mad scent hung in the air.
This is a fabulous collection, which has rightly been shortlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, but it does have two significant flaws. The first is structural: while each piece stands alone, some characters – especially those on the periphery – wander in and out of the narrative. Grimshaw has said she regards Opportunity as a novel, with the stories forming a unified whole, but in practice this device comes across as distracting and tricksy rather than unifying.
The second and more serious flaw is that many of the characters are so obnoxious it’s difficult to care what happens to them. In Opportunity, affection is suspect, friendship barely exists and love quickly turns to obsession. Men are often feckless, and sadistic; maternal affection brings fear as much as joy. The world of work is largely absent from these pages: instead, well-off Remuera women flit between tennis and golf and the gym and the yacht, pausing en route to drop their children off at expensive private schools. Grimshaw is a fine writer, but she’s in urgent need of a more engaging cast of characters.
Kelly Ana Morey comes weighted down with accolades. Her first novel, Bloom, won the 2004 PEN Hubert Church Award for Best First Book of Fiction, while book two, Grace is Gone, was a finalist in the Kiriyama Pacific Rim Fiction Prize. She has since received the Todd New Writers’ Bursary and the inaugural $10,000 Janet Frame Literary Award for Fiction. On an Island, with Consequences Dire has been eagerly awaited, and her publishers at least are describing it as Morey’s finest novel yet.
Choices: I could read, I could look for shoes online, or I could think. About Bride and what happened. About how sorry I am. Sorry’s no good to me now, Georgia. I know my darling, but it’s all I have to give. So many stories to choose from. Life, especially ours, is nothing more than an anthology of inexplicably related short pieces of writing. Believe me there are more benign places to go than the obvious story. The one about how on an island, with consequences dire, three girls go mad,
writes Morey at an early stage of the novel, which gives readers a useful tip-off that the story will be told in an exceptionally self-conscious, convoluted manner.
The three girls in question are Georgia, Bride and Kate, who grew up together: Bride disappeared under mysterious circumstances, Georgia left at 17, and Kate stayed and became a vet. Now Georgia has come back, and presumably at some point we’ll find out what happened to Bride. It clearly wasn’t anything particularly nice, though, as Georgia insists on hinting at tiresomely frequent intervals.
Penguin’s publicists insist the book has “an uneasy climate of suspicion, regret and resentment that relentlessly builds to a shocking climax”, which certainly came as news to me. Morey’s style – which is rambling, anecdotal and, at times, almost stream-of-consciousness – doesn’t lend itself to slow-burning atmosphere, and she’s not big on either structure or plot.
There’s not even much in the way of description. An island is a singular choice of setting, but we are told almost nothing about this one, and the pivotal roles of Kate, Bride, and Kate’s husband, Reagan, are laughably thinly drawn. The “shocking climax”, meanwhile, is a Hannibal Lecter-style bloodbath in which everyone behaves in a manner that is both absurd and completely out of character.
Morey had promised this book would be full of “hot girl-on-girl action”, but fails to deliver. Everyone is shagging everyone else, inevitably, but there’s no attempt to describe any relationships, sexual or otherwise, in a meaningful, convincing way. “Not for the first time, I suspect, he cursed the demon in the trousers that constantly led him into danger” is, alas, a typical line.
According to the acknowledgements, On an Island, with Consequences Dire went through six drafts. It’s hard to believe. Grace is Gone had a certain raw energy but, at this stage in Morey’s career, you’d expect it to be harnessed to a far greater level of technical skill and, even more importantly, self-discipline. There are occasional flashes of talent – a mother’s “static hum of chronic irritation”, a memory “faded like a fable written in lemon juice” – but these are few and far between. More common are passages such as the following:
It’s almost midnight and sitting in front of me is a recently refigured world, all of my own making. The globe is still here in my office as I haven’t yet finished poring over its quaint details. The royal warrant of the woman who I know as the Queen Mother proudly stamped on its plinth, the distance between meaningful ports measured in miles not kilometres and us, New Zealand, now on top of the world, maybe even looking down on creation as the song goes.
It’s quite something to write so badly that you make the lyrics of Karen and Richard Carpenter seem classy.
Linley Boniface is a Wellington reviewer.