Vincent O’Sullivan is a renowned man of New Zealand letters. His is a long and lauded career, and I’ve avoided his fiction until now.I did, in fact, once, a decade or two ago, get as far as purchasing an earlier and much praised novel, Believers to the Bright Coast. It has sat on my bookshelf unread, the covers never opened. You’ll likely recognise the type of book, the less than worthy motivation involved in its purchase.
This time, I was hooked by the title: All This by Chance. I’m interested in the randomness of life, the way we are shaped by chance, and that was enough to sustain me through what proved to be the most frustrating, challenging, and ultimately rewarding read in a long time.
The novel tells the story of Stephen and Eva, who meet by chance in London post WWII, their children David and Lisa, their grand daughter Esther, and Eva’s aunt Babica. They are members of a family disconnected and isolated from itself, in part by the Holocaust and in part by the decision Stephen and Eva take to not discuss the past, to live their lives as if they had not learned, by chance, some of the family history.
And this is where I began to get frustrated. I wanted to shake those people. Talking’s important to me. I’ve spent most of my life believing that if people just talked more then we’d all be better off. I’ve done a lot of talking, myself.
And yet, talking doesn’t always help. I know this. Interestingly, Vincent O’Sullivan knows it, too. In an interview published in The Writing Life he described himself as “reluctant to let on too much”. He tells the interviewer, Deborah Shepherd :
I don’t particularly confide in people about things that deeply matter to me … if you talk about something you diminish its importance.
And much as I wished these characters would just talk about things, much as I tended to sympathise with David’s frustration that more wasn’t done, if talking had been the choice taken it may not have provided a better outcome. There is the matter of language. Babica speaks German, none of the rest of the family do. Despite David’s bitterness over the choices made, those conversations he imagined, the information he craved … how reliable might any of it have been given the complexities and the limitations of language.
Towards the end of the novel Stephen takes Babica, who by now is suffering from some form of dementia, to see a doctor—an Austrian who is able to speak German with her. The doctor tells Stephen:
You should be grateful for how much she has forgotten, how marvellous it might be to sit in a room and to have the children liking to be there even in silence with her, the gift of of getting beyond language altogether (p298).
Indeed, what damage might have been done if talking had been pursued? As someone once said to me, if you’re going to lance a boil it pays not to get pus in your eye.
All This by Chance is a novel which is revealed layer upon layer. Sometimes it was as if I was reading poetry, sometimes an adventure story, and then a travelogue; through it all runs tragedy.
I complained about this book while I read it. I told my husband there was too much description. “The sentence structure is a nightmare,” I said. ” It’s all going nowhere,” I grumbled. And yet I persevered.
Now, several days later, I’ve thought about it, I’ve re-read sections, I’ve read the interview mentioned earlier, I’ve thought about it again, and likely will for a long time to come. It’s proved to be the most rewarding of reads. That sentence structure, those descriptive passsages, that long, slow revealing of the characters and their stories, put together it presents carefully observed truths about the human condition from a compassionate writer who trusts his reader to pay attention, to notice, to reflect.
In short All This by Chance proved to be an outstanding read. If you take it on, take it slowly, read it carefully, savour the language, and most of all trust the writer. You’ll be rewarded.
All This by Chance by Vincent O’Sullivan, 2018, Victoria University Press
Categories: On Books