Somebody Loves Us All
Victoria University Press, $38.00,
The title of Damien Wilkins’ sixth novel, Somebody Loves Us All, comes from a line by the American poet Elizabeth Bishop. The poem is called “Filling Station” and it describes a dilapidated service station – like Edward Hopper’s “Gas” gone to seed. Out the back, on the porch, is a greasy wicker sofa, a begonia plant and a crocheted cloth – signs, however grimy, of a domestic touch. “Somebody embroidered the doily”, writes Bishop, “Somebody waters the plant,/or oils it maybe … . Somebody loves us all.”
Through his central character Paddy Thompson, Wilkins glosses the lines for us:
The poem’s last line he had by heart, could summon easily and did so from time to time in a jokey fashion: ‘Somebody loves us all’. Meaning not God but simply a person close by. He approved. A somebody trying to make a difference, a mark.
It is the gentle, sometimes rambling, elaboration of this premise that governs the narrative of the novel. For Wilkins, free associating jump-cuts are a signature and in previous work he has applied them, sometimes with mixed success, but his latest, strongly located in Wellington and vividly describing intergenerational manners and preoccupations, has an assurance and confidence in the accumulating and numinous effect of his closely observed character portraits.
To begin with, Paddy Thompson is a more resilient bloke than the likes of the painfully detached Brett Healey in The Miserables or Luke in The Fainter, swooning in the face of events that bewilder him. Paddy is a speech therapist, specialising in maladies in children and adolescents. He has a couple on his books giving him particular grief. Sam Covenay for instance, an acne-scarred, emo kid who, in return for getting braces on his teeth, takes a vow of silence while taking every non-verbal opportunity to display the urge to connect.
In the past, while still in the hospital system, Paddy treated a boy injured in a quad bike accident, who was reduced to making anguished noises. Identifying a temporary deafness and patiently stabilising the boy’s neural disturbance, he restores him to speech and a successful future in the US. The boy’s rough-edged father, Tony Gorzo, forever grateful that Paddy had saved his boy “from the life of a retard”, becomes Paddy’s number one fan, telephoning each fortnight to comment on Paddy’s popular newspaper column “Speech Marks”, devoted to Oliver Sacks-like discussions of speech and cognition phenomena.
The novel annotates Paddy’s Wellington metro life. He is 50, divorced from Bridget and now contentedly re-married to Helena, who runs a foreign language school under review in reaction to “rumblings from the new government”. She has a difficult daughter, Dora, with whom Paddy uneasily relates. He has family too. No children, but his mother Teresa has moved into the inner-city apartment building where Paddy lives, and although adjacent she is staunchly independent. Widowed young, Teresa is not conventionally maternal – her eldest daughter Margie has querulously exiled herself to Canada, her youngest, Stephanie (two children, no husband), lives needily on the other side of “that terrible hill” in the Wairarapa.
Paddy has just taken up cycling – and it is both a central motif and a chance for some sly humour on the spandex ballet of the middle-aged city cyclist. At the behest of his close, but highly competitive, friend Lant, an educational psychologist, Paddy has bought all the kit, including the self-cleaning, wrap-around sunglasses, and is now circumnavigating the streets, hills and motorways of the Wellington region, evocatively described with Wilkins’ characteristic thrift and flair.
Despite all this sudden motion, Paddy’s life is a comfortably known entity. This is the still point of a world that is suddenly about to turn. It begins when his mother starts speaking in a French accent in Moore Wilson’s – asking for “gert” cheese and pain au chocolat from the bemused staff. Earlier in the afternoon she has bought a French dictionary in Whitcoulls and now it seems she has swallowed it whole.
In an interview, Wilkins describes keeping an old cutting, from what was then the Evening Post, about a woman in South Africa who emerged from unconsciousness in a road accident with a Scottish brogue accent. The phenomenon of a sudden change of language after trauma – known as foreign accent syndrome (FAS) – intrigued the author and when on the Mansfield writing fellowship in Menton in France (himself an Anglophone in a foreign land) he used it as a transformative image in Somebody Loves Us All.
In her new predicament, Teresa, now Therese, is still herself but, as the artisans in A Midsummer Night’s Dream say of Bottom’s magical alteration, “thou art translated”. All familiar, and familial, connections are re-framed and the flavour, the accent, the nuances of everyday life are altered. It is a puzzle for Paddy, both personally and clinically. His mother is now potentially a patient. Is he her therapist, or her parole officer? But first, a series of worrying MRI tests are needed to look for a tumour or other potentially fatal cause.
The implications ripple through the family – like spokes from the hub of a bicycle wheel. In the affectionate detail of the characters’ lives, sudden mysterious, time-consuming medical events are variously refracted through the cosmically small, but nonetheless real, anxieties of individuals. Helena is distracted by the education review and Dora’s disruptive behaviour as her temporary employee. Paddy is still disconcerted at Tony Gorzo’s telephone silence and Sam Covenay’s persistent hostile refusal to speak.
Old histories are examined for new insights, bringing into focus Teresa’s cousin Pip, a close childhood friend who, after a lifetime in Zimbabwe, has returned, slightly ironically, to settle in Palmerston North. In the hope of solving the French mystery of her cousin, Pip drives to Wellington to personally narrate an account of a trip she and Teresa made in their mid-teens, on heavy bicycles with pannier bags, up the North Island almost to Rotorua. Along the way they encountered a sinister man, Duncan, accompanied by a French woman called Genevieve.
It is a 43-three page narrative, almost long enough to be a separate short story – part reverie, part spooky urban myth. It is the kind of literary excursion that Wilkins is attracted to, and here it works well, a gripping exploration of a road that may or may not be a cul de sac. Does it explain Paddy’s Frenchified mother? His already aloof, elusive mother – now, perhaps permanently, neurologically French-fried?
It is for readers to discover for themselves the tributaries of Wilkins’ novel and their various destinations. There are some richly observed and memorable incidents. Paddy’s and Teresa’s visit to Petone, for instance, to attend the 100th birthday of Tony Gorzo’s mother. She is a tiny, archaic woman who still speaks only the dialect of her Greek village, but she is drawn into profound, wordless communication with Teresa. She is also the maker of the doilies and the waterer of plants for her crass, but stout-hearted son and his badly injured, now-mended, son Jimmy.
In this very satisfying novel, Wilkins has captured an ambitious amount of detail and feeling. He wrote the manuscript in Menton, he says, between April and December 2008, and it is bristling with current detail, of the defeat of Helen Clark’s government, and the streets and shops and landmarks of Wellington. It is a considerable achievement, one aspired to but not quite captured in some previous novels. Here, with a more affable and sociable central character, he has also connected vividly to his location – its physical typography and the emotional weather.
It is a gift reminiscent of writers like Anne Tyler, Richard Russo and even Nick Hornby, who find – not devils in the detail – but a fuzzy coherence. Tyler identifies it in the title of her 1998 novel, A Patchwork Planet, and Wilkins finds a very similar image himself:
It seemed both incredible and perfectly normal that Pip’s story should involve bikes. Here was the sort of coincidence that encouraged people to think the world was a quilted thing, each person carrying a patch, the bearer of an illustrated scene or design which made sense once it was joined to its neighbour, creating an effect that was pleasing, cohesive.
Whether they bring a doily or a patch, Wilkins tells us tenderly, with originality and wit, it’s the darndest thing, and they come from the oddest places, but somebody loves us all.
Murray Bramwell teaches drama at Flinders University in Adelaide, South Australia and is a regular theatre reviewer for The Australian.