Monday, 30 August 2010

Mary McCallum: The Blue

This blog has been rather neglected lately, as travelling has left me very little time for reading and reflection. But I'm moving at a more leisurely pace now and finding the space to read and think. It's always interesting to go to a new country and find new authors you wouldn't have read at home. New Zealand is particularly rich in good writers whose books don't make it across the ocean. Mary McCallum is one of them.
The novel is set in 1938, as political events on the other side of the world begin to escalate towards a European war. Lilian is a wife in a very enclosed whaling/subsistence farming community in the sounds of the South Island near Picton. Here, everyone knows everything about everyone else and there is no escaping the consequences of your actions. Her husband, Ed, is a casualty of the first world war, having escaped physical injury, but  he's one of those who has brought the horror of war home with him. Lilian’s children have their own problems too, coming to terms with their parents' marriage, as well as finding their own way in the world, deciding whether to leave their small community, or stay.
The novel is uncompromising where the facts of commercial whaling are concerned and offers no moral stance. The whale chase and the kill are graphically described. The thrill men feel when they pit themselves against a gigantic adversary is almost unbearably vivid and the women’s ambiguities are symbolised by the preserved whale foetus hidden in a storeroom. Getting enough whale oil to sell makes the difference between being able to feed and clothe your children, or having to leave the sounds to avoid starvation. The ethics of it all are luxuries these people can’t afford.
It was a strange experience reading this book in one of northern New Zealand’s former whaling stations, surrounded by the raw material of history and the landscape that shaped the story. The Blue is Mary’s first novel, published by Penguin New Zealand in 2007. As a first novel, it’s very impressive. It begins rather uncertainly, but the writing quickly gathers strength and the story becomes mesmerising. I was particularly impressed by the way the author handled a complicated backstory. The details of never-to-be-talked about past events are the key to the whole novel and they are gradually revealed in exactly the right places until the final, shocking, denouement. It is very well done.

Above all, the prose is beautiful, with paragraphs that could only be written by a poet. It’s a very good read.

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