The New Ships by Kate Duignan came to my attention when it was longlisted for the 2019 Ockham Book Awards, in New Zealand. It’s Kate Duignan’s second novel and but the first of her work I’ve encountered.
The New Ships is set in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. Those events, which happened half a world away, impact on the psyche of the characters, intruding even into the very last days of Moira, David Collie’s wife.
The novel is an account of grief, of what it means to be family, of belonging, and new beginnings. Grief, essentially, is a selfish emotion. Although a loss might be shared, as in the case of David Collie and his son, Aaron, the experience of the grief itself is essentially individual. It can be isolating, often overwhelming. And, in this story, their shared loss does separate Aaron and David from each other. It is a separation exacerbated by revelations, which emerge after Moira’s death, about Aaron’s parentage.
This is a well-executed book. The plot tensions and turning points are carefully crafted. There are plenty of literary and classical allusions to reward the reader. There’s an examinaton of racism, including the friction between recent arrivals in New Zealand and those who have been here longer. And it elucidates the intergenerational impact of political upheaval and violence—in this case the partition of India and Pakistan. Kate Duignan successfully interweaves ancient history, the recent past, the present, the personal and the political.
The characters are fully realised; even the bit players are given due care and attention making it easy to picture them off the page:
He finishes with the rope, lays it as his feet. The entire demeanour is that of a man who moves steadily from the centre of himself, one who would crack a chicken’s neck in the backyard without flinching, pluck a body from the boiling sea with a steady arm. (p63)
There’s all this, and the satisfaction that comes from reading a novel set for the most part in your own back yard. David lives in Hataitai, he drives the Kāpiti Coast road, his parents live in Whanganui, he owns a bach at Castlepoint. There’s the inevitable comparison between the two coasts—it’s an ongoing debate for North Islanders.
David’s life, despite the emotional pain of his wife’s death, is one of physical ease. He’s financially secure. Being placed on “gardening leave” by his law firm is not a concern to him. In fact it frees him up. This is the one piece that for me doesn’t ring true. Most people, financially secure or not, find that sort of imposed change, as with the loss of a loved one, very challenging. Given he put in the hard yards to make partner, the threat of that being taken from him at this particular point in his life would likely not be a background event. His reaction struck me as almost glib. I expected something more than frustration and annoyance, something that went to the heart of identity.
Although I wasn’t without sympathy for his situation, I did find David difficult to like. In the end, although much has happened to David Collie, although he has reviewed much of his life, I think he has remained essentially unchanged. Perhaps there is a truth in that—some say our essential selves remain intact despite the lessons life deals us.
Nevertheless, this is a finely crafted novel that traverses the territory of love and loss, broken family ties, and political upheaval with great skill. It engaged me to the end.
Opening sentence: Rob rang from England last night.
The New Ships by Kate Duignan (2018) Victoria University Press.
Categories: On Books