Fathoms deep, James Robins

The New Ships
Kate Duignan
Victoria University Press, $30.00,
ISBN 9781776561889

It’s a deeply distressing thing to find the word “bugger” on the first page of a New Zealand writer’s novel. Rather like opening some French fiction to discover “sacré bleu!” taunting you. The instant, visceral fear is of cliché and kitsch, that grating Kiwi patois so maladapted to literature. Or, worse, calling to mind that old television ad of the grimy sheepdog grunting the word from the back of a ute.

And yet, here it is, conspicuously, in the second sentence of The New Ships from Kate Duignan, a writer of the VUP-IIML set, recipient of both the Louis Johnson New Writer’s Bursary and the Robert Burns Fellowship. Mercifully, though, her second novel is not quite so parochial. There’s “bugger”, yes, and ngaio branches scraping windowpanes, and Oriental Bay squalls, and the perpetual grind of Wellington’s coffee machines, and “routine four Weet-Bix” for breakfast, but also Greek pastorals, Dutch poverty, Peshawar refugees, Leftist militants, and Mozart’s Requiem. The New Ships is a work of geographical expanse, fathoms-deep in its emotional span, bridging generations. 

A bleary, juddered narrator: Peter Collie, middle-aged lawyer, ailing parents, just recently widowed, his wife Moira sapped then stolen by the convulsions of cancer. A trapdoor opens underneath Peter’s life, and this story is his plummet through it. Or, perhaps a better metaphor is of a sailor suddenly marooned, adrift in a vast ocean yearning for landfall, because The New Ships is riven with evocations of the marine. 

The title itself is pinched from T S Eliot’s “Marina”, and an introductory epigram quotes Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s “You Tell Us What to Do”: oars untested, rivers of grief, invisible currents: 

Investigate the matter as you will,
blame whomever, as much as you want,
but the river hasn’t changed,
the raft is still the same.
Now you suggest what’s to be done,
you tell us how to come ashore. 

In the stunned wake of Moira’s death, Peter is called to memories of his younger years, when he floated buoyantly through Europe in the early 1970s. Before he had a respectable job. Before the unsaid expectations of bourgeois life sank in. He wound up in poor Amsterdam, working as a ship-breaker (naturally) and making love to a French girl named Genevieve aboard a borrowed houseboat bobbing on the canal. Genevieve fell pregnant and gave birth to a girl named Abigail. The infant survived only for a few weeks in the cold. A daughter disappeared. 

By clever allusion, the houseboat is named Lychorida, for the midwife in Shakespeare’s Pericles, Prince of Tyre, who delivers a baby amidst a storm at sea. And what’s more, the baby in that play is Marina, who ends up in the island city of Mytilene, where Peter’s friend Rob has a holiday home, and where he spots a young waitress who looks startlingly like that dead daughter. The thought occurs: could Abigail still be alive? 

Duignan piles on the literary hints: Peter treasures a gold-bound copy of Longus’s obscure Greek romance Daphnis and Chloe, which, of course, is about two children abandoned to the sea. They survive their fated grave, and come aground at – where else? – Mytilene. 

Two children, though. For the parallel to work, there must be another child. “…A second woman, a second child.” And it’s here we meet Aaron, 25-years- old, returned to New Zealand for his mother Moira’s funeral, but impatient to fly – or flee – back to London where he strives to make it as an actor. He is not Peter’s biological son, and the second half of The New Ships is bound up in discovering Aaron’s true provenance. There is a late revelation that perhaps stretches the realistic grain of Duignan’s story, though it’s not so dissonant from her first novel Breakwater (there we go again), which explored the fragile foundations of family. 

But we’re not yet done with aquatic themes. Peter owns a decrepit bach at Castlepoint on the Wairarapa coast, open to the bluster of the South Pacific, not far from a lighthouse. Illumination amid the pitching waves. And, in a spur of spontaneous largesse (at any other time we’d call this a mid-life crisis), partly to win the approval of an ancient-mariner-type looping knots on the quay, he buys a pleasure cruiser which he charts around Wellington Harbour, observing the grey hulk of the warship HMNZS Canterbury. The novel is set in 2001, two months after the Twin Towers came down, when Prime Minister Helen Clark ordered New Zealand troops into an American adventure in Afghanistan. Such a setting provides Duignan with a chance to set up a thoughtful parallel between protests Peter was witness to in the 1970s, and those of the turn of the millennium. One character is an agitator for the Angry Brigade who comes home bruised and battered from Mayday riots; another plot to terrorise the capital’s bureaucracy into halting the Afghan invasion. 

There are two sides to Duignan’s prose. Occasionally, she slips into wince-making slang like the aforementioned “bugger” or “chockablock”. For the most part, however, she has a keen capacity for apt description and lyrical imagining. Of a hospital ward she describes “The children wailing in the night. That vertiginous feeling, the droning hum in the ear, the sense of a chasm, somewhere, opening up.” Or, two people long-separated, “falling into the same precise square of memory.” Of the final throes of Moira’s cancer, Duignan attunes to her “agony of breathlessness as if she were trying to draw air up through a wet sponge.”

The novel is, by its nature, slightly meandering, scored with long flashbacks, brief biographies of painters and colonial governors, meditative patches, assorted discursions. Some of this is pure baggy padding and ought to have been pruned. But Duignan skilfully pulls many of the loosest strands into alignment with the whole. Each plunge backwards is placed perfectly. Any anxious questions are answered by an expository dip into the past, which in turn casts its light on futurity. A lesser writer would be swamped by such varied themes and characters. Duignan impressively marshals them toward unity. 

Her greatest achievement is in the rich detailing of Peter’s inner life, which is, to be sure, undoubtedly male. But what makes him a compassionate figure is his constant introspection and self-doubt: a tempestuous wrestling with belonging and meaning, his desperate unspoken need for terra firma. Again, a lesser writer would have made this seem like pathetic neurosis. The portrait here is of a man thoroughly unmoored. 

Family: “What does it add up to?” a taunted and haunted Peter asks of himself. “Data, anecdotes, false nostalgia. Mostly, in these parts, we forget about the past and get on with it, the here and now … What use is it really to linger on victories, old injuries?” He expresses a deep need for the return of permanence and certainty. To have Aaron back. To have Moira restored to him. And that earlier pair: Abigail and Genevieve. A pater robbed of his familias. Peter ruminates on one of the most flatly tragic figures in literature: Orpheus, lyre in hand, descended to the underworld in longing for his lost love. (After his death, where else does Orpheus’ disembodied head end up? On Lesbos, on the other side of the island to Mytilene.)  

And what makes Peter so tragic, in turn, is the suggestion that responsibility for all his strife lies at his own feet. That he caused it and, more poignantly, that he could have done something differently. “Does karma mean that everything comes back to me, everything returns, that whatever suffering I go through is at my own hand?” he begs in one of his many low moments. “No. Just give me the implacable, impersonal Fates, measuring out the thread and making their arbitrary cut.” 

What Duignan has crafted in The New Ships is a saga. Dense with admirably intelligent references. Thoroughgoing in its trek through the hinterlands of grief. Imaginative and wide. Thick with junctions and intersections. You keenly feel the weight of generations, the sense that this story is only a sliver or a snapshot of a much larger ancestry that spills over the borders of these humble islands into the wider world.  

James Robins is an award-winning freelance critic and journalist for the Listener and the New Zealand Herald.

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