Claire Mabey gave birth to a 34-week-old golden-haired boy in Wellington last week. She also found the time to review a heartbreaking novel about the death of a baby.
The writing of this review of Kate Duignan’s novel The New Ships got hijacked half-way by early onset pre-term labour and the arrival of my first born. A 34-week-old golden haired boy who is now in the NICU unit at Wellington hospital, and doing very well.
I’m on Day 3 and in a fug of new information, a new version of my body and a new tiny person who is inexplicably, unbelievably completely himself. I haven’t been outside and I don’t even feel as though I’m in Wellington. The Wellington in The New Ships is more real to me. I’d got half-way through my thoughts on The New Ships before I become a mother and the book’s central themes have wafted in an out of my head over the past days.
The heartbreak at the centre of The New Ships is hard to shake. The death of a baby is a trauma that Duignan never lets come loose – for the reader, or the central protagonist.
Peter Collie is a Wellington lawyer whose wife, Moira, has just died of cancer. They have one son, Aaron, and Peter’s mother-in-law, Claudia, is stereotypically overbearing. Peter’s firm has a Hotere on the wall and there is concern about keeping the big clients happy. You probably think you know the kind of guy Peter is – you’ll have seen men just like him strolling down the Terrace in a suit or leaning over a bar in Lambton Quay.
But this is a novel about things being not as they appear. Peter’s past and present intertwine from the opening pages, placing immediate question marks over Peter’s next moves and what could possibly be the best thing to do when you are in the depths of grief. A friend from the Amsterdam days, Rob, phones and introduces Genevieve and Abigail, the first and second of the three women we learn Peter has lost. We soon know that as a young man, Peter lived on a houseboat in Amsterdam, had a French girlfriend (Genevieve) with whom he had a baby girl (Abigail) who died when she was just six weeks old.
Abigail haunts Peter and the various storylines of the novel from the first pages. Amid the fresh grief of Moira’s death, Rob reveals that he and his wife have seen a French waitress who is the spitting image of Genevieve. The insinuation is that Abigail may still be alive. Seeds of hope are planted and the novel then takes us back and forth in and out of Peter’s past.
Art and music accompany and reflect the central characters throughout the book. For Peter, Marc Chagall’s paintings of the story of Daphnis and Chloe complement and foreshadow his own life. On arrival in Amsterdam he falls in love with the book of paintings as he is falling in love with Genevieve. The story of Daphnis and Chloe is one of trauma and obstacles before it is finally one of love. Both Daphnis and Chloe are abandoned at birth by their parents and brought up instead by shepherds on the island of Lesbos. After various trials (near rape incident, pirate capture…) they eventually are reunited with their parents and fall in love with each other, living happily ever after.
Peter is a kind of lost child. As well as attempting to cope with grief, the hope of a possible/impossible Abigail, and the changing circumstances of his only son, Peter has to take care of his parents. Duignan describes with acute sensitivity Peter negotiating with himself how much he tells them, how much he reflects on their lives and current state of health and well being.
The toll of Peter’s current circumstances play out in an uncomfortable vine of story involving Laura, a clerk at Peter’s law firm. It’s this clash of corporate life and private that pulls us back from Peter’s memories of Greece, Amsterdam and France and into Wellington and lawyer life on the Terrace. Peter acts in a fog of alcohol and grief allowing Laura too close to him and his private pains. His mistakes are awkward and a reminder of the vulnerabilities of people: Peter appears like any other Wellington suit but Duignan plumbs right to the depths of him and shows us a universe of story.
The New Ships ultimately reminds you of hidden depths and lost stories in the individual, no matter how standard a person they may appear. With its deft account of a tangle of lives, it reminds you of the comfort that can be taken from a look into the messy lives of others.
It’s a heartbreaking book. It’s full of the trials of being a parent. Doing your best, loving your best, but making mistakes and missing things. Peter is just a person who does his best: but his is a complex set of stories which Duignan doesn’t fully tie up for us. We are left with the dual existence of love and grief, and with the cycle of life: we are always somebody’s child and if we are lucky, somebody’s parent too.
The New Ships by Kate Duignan (Victoria University Press, $30) is available at Unity Books.