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Ash by Louise Wallace (Image: Tina Tiller)
Ash by Louise Wallace (Image: Tina Tiller)

BooksApril 24, 2024

Page-turning rural gothic: Ash by Louise Wallace, reviewed

Ash by Louise Wallace (Image: Tina Tiller)
Ash by Louise Wallace (Image: Tina Tiller)

Books editor Claire Mabey reviews poet Louise Wallace’s debut novel.

A famous poet once said to me that he’s always suspicious when a poet publishes a novel. I never really understood why but maybe it’s something to do with cheating on your first form. Louise Wallace is a poet. She’s published four collections and is co-founder of Starling, a literary journal for writers under 25, where many of the country’s new poetic talents are discovered. As of a few weeks ago Wallace is now also a novelist and, for me, the author of not only one of the best books I’ve read this year, but ever. 

Ash is slight. It takes all of an hour to read, two if you’re going slow and close, which is a rewarding method with such a book. My first read (in one sitting, late at night, among the clutter of chaotic work-family life) induced a feverish response: I knew I had met with a piece of art that shoots straight for truths about motherhood, misogyny, rage, love and fear in a way that felt wholly new. It gave me a rare kind of high that makes me want to gather boxes of the book and airdrop them all over the country. I realised I had been waiting for this: a revolutionary text in conversation with universal themes that are treated with a poet’s precision and a poet’s slant. Ash speaks to women on a level that is cellular, private and often unexplored, buried as they often are under the weight of daily life.

The story begins with heat: “kids melting all over the kerb,”; “men and women suffocating in trench packs”. Pressure and tension emanate from the first pages which describe a mother pushing “a bulky pram up a gravel hill” while she’s on maternity leave (“which I seem to have taken to with the spirit of an angsty chihuahua”) from her job as a rural vet. As she walks, the mother listens to a podcast about a missing boy, possibly taken by a bear. When she sees a piece of polystyrene in the neighbours’ garden it looks like a headstone: “I can see death in anything.” These details immediately embroil us in a rural gothic: a close foreboding in which children are vulnerable and adults are stressed. Wallace’s poetic muscle shines the familiar until they glint and flash with the uncanny: “A stationary tractor. A rotting floral couch”; “The white paint is mostly gone, revealing a rusty red”; “I look with envy at the sheets outside, near gusting away on the line.” The elements of place – the spare, vivid, tensions they draw – make Ash a page turner. A stylish jab to the adrenal glands with the whiff of horror on every page. 

Louise Wallace. (Photo: Ebony Lamb)

Writer types often talk about the “voice” of a book. Ash speaks loud and clear with every careful word, punctuation mark, and stretches of blank (but not empty) space. The creative treatment of format and voice is where Wallace makes poetry dance with the novel form. Between the more traditional narrative sections in first-person there are “figures”: pages dedicated to impressions of voice, like specimens. For example, Figure 5. (Checking In) repeats the question “Are you okay?” dense at first, then sparse as it falls down the page, until the final line which is, “and then they stop asking”.

I hesitate to use the term “experimental” here, as the term can be offputting and inaccurate. Instead, Ash is inventive, but the effect is not to obfuscate or abstract. The poetic interjections bring the voice of the main character into even sharper insight. Our inner worlds are never clear, or linear, or one-tracked. They’re jumbled with multi-tasking and questions and perceptions. What Louise Wallace has achieved with the poetry in her novel (much like what Max Porter has done in his hugely successful books Grief is the Thing with Feathers, Lanny, and most profoundly, Shy) is distil the internal voice and place it on the page in a way that reflects, visually, the multiplicity of thought that anyone can have at any one time. 

As the story unfolds we understand that the mother’s inner world is boiling. The mother is never named in the book but from the blurb we know she is called Thea, which means goddess, which suggests that Wallace’s creation is an ode to women at large. Thea’s experiences with casual and ingrained workplace misogyny (“you’re breaking my balls here, girly”), with the gaze of the fucking wellness industry that perves at her from the edges (her husband works for personal trainer Tamara Brinkley: “Go Farther: With Tamara”), with the exploitation of her competence, make this book in part about women weathering the micro obliterations of an unfit system. If you’ve ever felt the had-it-up-to-here-I’m-about-to-blow then you’ll relate, hard, to Thea. 

I’ve read many books about women and rage but none of them have managed to leave the experience as open as Ash does. Another of Wallace’s poetic innovations is the insertion of a story that runs along the bottom pages in the central chunk of the book – like a stream at the foot of a mountain. The simplicity and potency of this device took my breath away. The footnote narrative opens up time in the novel and extends a generous hand to women of our past; those under more oppressive expectations of how a woman is meant to behave, what she’s expected to do with her time and her body. 

Louise Wallace’s four collections of poetry.

There is rage inside Ash, but there is also profound and troubling love. One of my favourite images is from a scene at the veterinary clinic where Thea works: “Mrs Rogers asks if I can open the window to let out his soul. So I do. She cradles the body close like a baby, clinging to it – the cat’s mouth is frozen ajar, nestled near her armpit.” It’s that same horror of the familiar. The kind of disarming comedy that exists in the familiar/uncanny. I found the exploration of the world of the vet – those sideways doctors in animal hospitals nestled between supermarkets and hair salons – a brilliant device to draw out the tensions in the novel. In the space between human and animal there is death, and miracles, and families, and loneliness, and tragedy, and hierarchies and power dynamics. Thea’s worlds slide between human care/neglect and animal, home and paddock, and the hundreds of selves that travel alone between them.

The love between people and pets – and the inevitable loss – is a hint at the unspoken but heavily present fear that underpins the love and the rage. It’s the potential and the eventuality that accompanies every birth of every child; the worry that hangs over, or inside, every parent. Wallace sets us up for disaster but I’m going to tell you now that the worst does not happen. I couldn’t have read it if it did. The fear of something happening to my baby is so big to me that I can hardly type it. I am grateful to Wallace for articulating the stress of that fear without taking Thea into the nightmare. We see enough early death in the real world. 

That is not to say there isn’t catastrophe: a major turn in the novel is a disaster that parallel’s our experiences of the Covid pandemic. Navigating an already stressful life within the disruptions of disaster brings us even closer to Thea’s boiling points, but also shifts the emotional landscape of the book. Again the design of the novel – the line illustrations on certain pages (like fractures, or mountainsides), the “before” and “after” partitions – work to support the complex architecture of Thea’s navigations: the vulnerable, the questioning, and the mighty.

Between and underneath the rage and worry is an astute, and often funny, analysis of loss: “Nothing in my life is performative anymore and that feels both good and terrible.” Thea thinks this after she and her colleague spot a 20-something with “a midsection so taut you could bounce a ping-pong ball off it”. It’s amusing and relatable and shows how the infrastructure of misogyny that is inbuilt in capitalism is an attempt to make women afraid of themselves: fear the loss of your body (buy fitness), fear the loss of youth (buy skin care), fear losing your shit (buy relaxation and wellness). At a slant, Ash looks at how far away the freedoms of the goddesses of old (with their tempestuousness, desires, ferocious revenges, weather-big presence) can feel, even for women in 2024.

As much as my tendency is to thrust this book under certain noses – Ash never slips into didactics. The poetry of this book is in the exploratory pauses; in the turns that change everything; in the gallery of figures that echo, and question and let the voices speak.

Louise Wallace has created a piece of art that burns. Ash lives and breathes: the highest compliment I could pay to a book. I am deeply jealous that I did not write it myself because it feels like it was written for me with pieces of my own brain. And the thing is many, many readers will feel the same: if you like taut suspense, it’s here; rural gothic, read this book; motherhood, parenting, modern life; disaster narratives; historical fiction; and poetry too. 

Ash by Louise Wallace (Te Herenga Waka University Press, $30) is available from Unity Books Wellington and Auckland

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