Dying in the first person, Nike Sulway

First published in the Newtown Review of Books (18 July 2017), my review of Nike Sulway’s luminous novel, Dying in the first person.

This is a powerful and extraordinarily beautiful story of family, love and sacrifice. Sulway has created a world we enter slowly, uncovering the past and its hurts in small steps. It draws the reader into a place of mystery and wonder as Samuel is brought face to face with an emissary, Ana, who brings news of his long-estranged twin brother.

We learn of Morgan’s death in the canal near their home in Amsterdam in the opening lines —‘A woman came across the field, carrying the body of my brother, who had drowned.’ Ana’s first contact is through letters, then telephone calls. Samuel and his mother, Solange, have had no first-hand contact with Morgan for many years but on accompanying Morgan’s body back to be buried, Ana stays, allowing herself to rest, to be loved. In Sulway’s depiction of her growing relationships with Samuel and Solange, there is a longing and vulnerability that all readers will recognise.

Sulway explores ideas of sacrifice and the accompanying notions of obligation, commitment and entitlement; these are part of loving somebody. Her characters’ offerings to those they love are almost biblical in their scope—life, freedom, memory and voice—but we can see echoes of them in our own lives. We all make huge, yet unrecognised, sacrifices every day, for love.

It is through the book’s gradual unfolding that we learn of Morgan’s life, his self-imposed isolation from his family and why and how he died. Ana’s complicated relationship with Morgan is teased out. Ultimately, she has wanted to save him: ‘I believed I could rescue him, restore him to himself, simply by being patient and kind.’ Sulway’s examination of Morgan’s mental state reminded me of Jeffrey Euginides in his 2011 book The Marriage Plot where Madeleine, who wants to save Leonard, is told: ‘But you can only save yourself.’ Sulway is acutely aware of our limitations in treating emotional pain.

The book’s central theme is the power of language. Sulway portrays its role, through narrative, in recording truth, or lack of truth, which then, in turn, allows us to see reality and change and grow. As children, the boys develop a secret language, sophisticated and complex. As adults, Morgan writes books in this language and becomes famous; the language has taken on a life of its own, studied by linguists, the focus of international conference. His books are translated by Samuel who is conflicted about his role in appropriating words not his own. Who owns these stories?

As boys, they had developed an entire world in this secret language—the island of Nahum—inhabited by men only. Sulway’s examination of the roles of men and women, their strictures and freedoms, is light and deft. She never hammers home a message, leaving nuance and murkiness to allow us to reach our own conclusions. While her attachment to her women characters is evident—Solange, in particular, her talents, intellect, resourcefulness, independence—she tells her story through men and their agency. Women’s stories and powers, the influence of a mother in shaping her children, is always present but in the background.

One spring morning,’ my brother would intone, holding his tiny craft aloft in this wide, pale hands, ‘the father leaves his son sleeping and goes to the sea. He does not know, when he steps onto the deck, whether he will return, whether it will be a good day, or a bad day, but he goes down to the sea, because that is what men do.

And at the end, we are left with Ana’s sacrifice, her selflessness as she, too, goes into the storm.

Sulway’s writing is beautiful and evocative. She forces her readers to slow their pace, to absorb every detail through her recreation of scenes in real time precision: the trappings and formalities of a funeral, the basting of a turkey.

In the kitchen, our mother laid out her ingredients, as well as her needles, skewers, scissors and string, her long-handled, flat-faced spoons and glass bowls. She had taken out her recipe form its hiding place, where it lay folded all year, cheek-to-cheek with a page clipped from the newspaper in 1949, which had detailed instructions on how to truss a turkey. Once everything was in place, she opened a bottle of dry Semillon, poured herself a shallow, golden glassful and began.


In many ways, this is a book about the complexity of human relationships and the little that children ever really know of their parents’ lives.

Sulway, Nike, Dying in the first person, Transit Lounge Publishing, Melbourne, 2016, ebook and paperback (304 pages), RRP $29.99

Sunshine, Kim Kelly

The lives of three men and a women, returned from the front after World War I, intersect in a new offering from Kim Kelly – an historical novella set in the fictional hamlet of Sunshine in far north-western New South Wales, ‘out the back of Bourke’.

Snow, Grace and Art are each looking for something real in their lives to fill the holes left by war. Snow blames himself for the death of a dear friends, Art’s trauma left him hospitalised and shamed by a nervous paralysis, and Grace, a ‘surgical nurse and do-it-yourself butcher’ has seen too much.  A fresh start is offered by the Australian Government’s Solider Settlement scheme—a well-meaning though ill-considered plan to give returned soldiers parcels of land on which to farm.  Many divisions were worthless, unable to yield a decent crop and the scheme was eventually abandoned. Kelly’s gentle examination of a nascent modern Australia reminds us also of its founding on theft through the Scheme’s dispossession of the Indigenous population. These intertwined stories about citrus crops along the Darling River illustrate some of its hopes and successes.

After serving Australia in a foreign war, Aboriginal horseman Jack Bell returns to a nation which has broken his family and removed his livelihood. On five shillings a day, signing up was a leap into riches, and respect, impossible at home. He muses, ‘No such distinction as black of white but yes sir and no sir, get on with the friggen job. Why did it have to take the insanity of war to make things so equal and reasonable as that? Stupid friggen question.’ Now, the Government wants him ‘looked after’ on a mission. Bucking at that, he returns to the land of his birth and finds it divided and apportioned to other returned soldiers. White soldiers.

Snow McGlynn receives such an allocation. He has retreated within himself, wants no company, and needs to throw himself into his farm to forget the pain of war and loss. Snow muses early on, ‘He didn’t have anything against blacks, not really, but they always made a mess and had their hand out … ‘  Through his developing relationship with Jack, Kelly opens our eyes to Australia’s rank hypocrisy as Snow becomes alive to Jack’s knowledge of and connection with the land, and the racism underpinning Snow’s own good fortune. Both returned soldiers—one rewarded, the other stripped of his dignity and self-determination.

Art Lovelee has been hospitalised with a  phantom paralysis. Shamed and infantilised, the prevailing medical view was to ignore their symptoms and jolly them along, like children. Through Art, Kelly quietly reminds us that the ‘deranged’ have forever been feared, their illness taboo. ReadingSunshinebrought back Pat Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy(Penguin 1996) which powerfully evokes soldiers’ trauma in the First World War and Kelly includes in her epigraph a verse from Siegfried Sassoon, the wartime poet who features so strongly in Barker’s work.

Art finds himself in the care of Grace who coaxes him back to health, then follows him to Australia. She has her own demons. She remembers too well the screams of the boy whose eyes she had to wash of poison gas from ‘the green cloud, from the devil’s very breath that swept across Flanders Fields.’ She remembers the amputees and the men carrying metal bullets in their bodies.

Kelly’s writing is clear and joyous. While she writes of dispossession and death, her message is hopeful. There is beauty all around—Grace, transplanted from cold, damp England to a parched and hot land looks to the future. Bending down to pick up a scrap she thinks has come from her washing, she sees it is a daisy,

… a little blue daisy, sitting in a sparse and thirsty-looking clump of grass. She crouched down to peer at it: a baby-blue wheel, so stark, so fabulous, here upon the rich red timeless soil: and such a surprise: she reminded herself all joy was surprising, never coming as dreamed or planned.

Kim Kelly Sunshine Jazz Monkey Publications 2019 PB 222pp $20.53

First published by the Newtown Review of Books  on 5 March 2019

The Museum of Modern Love, reviewed in Newtown Review of Books

I was late to this party. I’d heard about this novel, and when I finally found time for fiction this year, I lost myself in it immediately. Heather Rose has written a masterpiece of introspection. The reader pauses to look up from the page and reflect, to remember a passage over the course of the day and stop for a moment, or longer, to ask us why? What would I do?

Wrapping her stories around the work of a living artist—Rose sought, and was granted approval—is a gift. To read is to learn, and the book is set around the life and work of the performance artist Marina Abramović, specifically her performance ‘The Artist is Present’ at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2010. Over 75 days, she sat in a simple wooden chair. When a visitor took the seat opposite, she would lift her head, open her eyes as a veil lifting, and sit in that stance for as long as her counterpart stayed. ‘Is it a staring competition?’ ask visitors to the Museum.

What is art? A question surely as old as art itself. Abramović suggests that art is life. And just as the artists invited those who sat with her to participatein the art, Heather Rose asks us to turn inwards. We are not observers. We are participants who need to reconcile with life. The Museum of Modern Loveasks us, How do we learn to see what is before us?

Rose invites the reader into the life of Arky Levin, a famous NY composer. Arky’s perspective guides us though the exhibition and he forms a companionable, though disinterested bond with Jane Miller, a tourist and fellow gallery visitor. They are both distracted, lost andcontemplating uncertainty.  Jane’s husband has died, too young; her grief, one year on, still palpable. Jane ‘has always liked certainty. It was one of the pleasure of being a teacher…’ She wants more time: time with her husband, time for her own life.

Levin is flailing. His wife, suffering an inherited degenerative condition has removed herself from his life,  admitting herself to fulltime care in an institution.  ‘She had been certainty. When everything fell apart, she would be there. It was partly why he always felt so angry when she got sick. He didn’t like that the whole world wobbled when that happened, and he felt small. Small and alone.’

There were questions that terrified his sense of order. His deepest sense of how life should be lived. Ought to be lived. But should and ought were words for certainty. What words belonged to uncertainty?

Abramović, their mirror, faces uncertainty each time she takes up her position in the performance, opening the door to new knowledge. The intensity of their Museum experience forces both Jane and Levin to focus their gaze, to see what cannot be avoided. And finally, Levin understands, ‘with vivid clarity that the best ideas come from a place with a sign on the door saying I don’t know…’

In a further twist on the role of observer and the observed, occasionally Rose draws back and follows the participants going about their day through different narrators, hovering on the edges. One is perhaps the muse, or a higher consciousness. ‘I drew Levin’s attention to the day outside … For all he wasn’t listening to my musical suggestions, he was amendable to an interruption…I watched him. There is nothing more beautiful than watching an artist at work….’  Yet another is from Marina’s past who shows us how a childhood of physical and emotional deprivation in times of war shaped her performance art. We are reminded of the power that the dead have over us.

Other characters, students and commentators seamlessly integrate the artist’s background and body of work into the story taking the reader on a journey through her life. And Rose has held a mirror to us, the reader, through the very ordinariness of those who sit opposite. A young man slumping, ‘[Jane] wanted to tell him to sit up straight’, ‘a young woman with a tiny pair of shoulders and long lank hair…she appeared to be bowed under the weight of a short and exhausting life….’, those frail, and others defiant.

This is also a New York story. For those who love the city, from the residents’ style and beauty —‘three-day growth on his perfect jawline’—to the  food—onion bagels get more than one mention, to the buildings, streets and avenues, every page is a delight. Levin knows that New York’s light obliterates a darkness, a void that is both the universe and his own sense of aloneness. For Jane, the visitor, it is a temporary haven.

Rose has written a powerful story of lives interrupted and of seeking, and finding and learning. The Museum of Modern Love is about both understanding our choices and finding the strength to make them.

First published in The Newtown Review of Books.

The Museum of  Modern Love, Heather Rose (Allen & Unwin 2016 RRP $27.99)