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Ithaca by Alie Benge
Ithaca by Alie Benge

BooksApril 26, 2023

Sharp, witty, precise: a review of Ithaca by Alie Benge

Ithaca by Alie Benge
Ithaca by Alie Benge

Sam Brooks reviews a new collection of essays by writer Alie Benge.

A book of essays is a strange thing. Is it memoir? Is it criticism? Is it analysis? Is it some unholy mixture of all three, where an author alternates between looking into the middle distance and into their own navel? Even more crucially, how do you collect a series of disconnected writings in a way where they all benefit from sitting alongside each other, a royal flush of storytelling as opposed to a scoreless hand of clubs, threes, and diamonds – beautiful individually but existing very separately.

Alie Benge’s first book, Ithaca, is one of those non-fiction books that shifts between several forms. It is sometimes memoir, sometimes personal essay, sometimes criticism, sometimes analysis, sometimes even outright comedy. The one constant throughout is Benge’s voice – sharp, witty, precise. Whenever I’ve read her writing on this very site, I’ve always imagined her chatting directly to me, perhaps mid-cigarette, the coolest person in the room. 

There’s no doubt that Benge has lived a life that’s worthy of a book or three. As a child, she lived in Ethiopia with her Christian missionary family, spent time serving in the army in Australia, before completing her MA at the IIML in Wellington a few years ago. There’s a solid memoir somewhere in this book, and the personal essays about her romantic relationships in particular scratch at relatable scabs, but the lens Benge applies to her own life is oddly removed, soft-focus and hazy.

Benge is, again, a talented writer, with a keen sense of where to place an image, a metaphor, even a little turn of phrase, in a story to devastate us. Sentence to sentence, paragraph to paragraph, Benge’s writing is littered with enough gems to fill a Michael Hill store. Take the below, for example:

“We drove through the Piazza, past Haile Selassie’s palace, and Ghion Hotel: places I knew I’d been before, but I was sure they didn’t look like this. And with my heart dropping, I realised what I’d done: I’d forgotten this place. I’d broken my few memories into spare parts and with those parts I’d made something else, something that wasn’t real, and then spent my whole life missing it.”

Photograph of the writer Alie Benge beside cover of her book Ithaca.
Alie Benge (Photo: Ebony Lamb)

Unfortunately, that same surgical precision isn’t applied to the actual storytelling. When retelling the story of her remarkable life, Benge drops facts and events with little sense of import or weight. Thus, she sits in an uncanny valley as a storyteller – removed enough to remain detached, but not quite detached enough to be cold. That is to say, too often these essays end up being about a compelling, engaged narrative in favour of actually telling one. It leads to the feeling that you’re reading someone recount a story told by the person who actually lived that story; disorienting in a book written entirely in the first person.

That’s ultimately a matter of taste. My preference for personal essays is that you come away a bit shaken, with your perspective shifted a little after you read them, your lens widened. The better essays in the book do this. Take, for instance, the essay ‘Good Girl’, where Benge discusses her relationship with touch, and the aftermath of a sexual assault with startling clarity, and precision: 

“How else can another body hurt me somewhere that my own body can’t reach? I cannot enter in and pluck out the splinter that was left in me. Unwanted touch induces in me the same sick feeling, of an intimacy that isn’t right, isn’t real. It confuses love.”

In those moments, Ithaca rings true. It’s just that these moments feel scattered throughout, rather than structurally placed. I came away from most of Benge’s book being impressed by her craft, rather than emotionally engaged with her stories. However, this is likely the result of needing to create a distance between the writer and the narrative voice, given the nature of writing about personal trauma. While that remove is admirable, I’m not sure if that’s the reaction Benge is hoping to evoke. 

Where Ithaca misses the mark for me is that the essays, the stories, the criticism doesn’t add up to more than the sum of the parts. The essays sit alongside each other like uncomfortable coworkers pulled together for an office photo. This is most obvious when information is brought up in one essay that we’re already familiar with from an earlier essay, but as though we’re not familiar with it – like her history in the army, and a previous relationship. When that information is repeated, it gives the sense that each piece should be read and appreciated individually, rather than next to each other. It can make Ithaca feel like a friend repeating a story they’ve already told. You’re not angry they’re telling it, because they tell it well, but you do wonder why you were listening the first time around.

As a showcase for what Benge is capable of as a writer, Ithaca couldn’t be better. But as a book, I couldn’t help but want more – of everything. I wanted more cohesion. I wanted the essays to dive deeper. I wanted a little bit more analysis, a little bit more context. A collection of lovely essays by a talented, intelligent writer is never going to go down wrong, but this is a collation, not a curation. When I closed Ithaca, I wasn’t thinking of any of the stories told inside it. I was thinking of how much I can’t wait for Benge’s next book.

Ithaca by Alie Benge, (Te Herenga Waka University Press, $35) can be purchased from Unity Books Wellington or Unity Books Auckland

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