Ocean of Milk by Belinda Aycrigg (99 percent press, 2018) 473 pp., $30
Amalia wakes up in hospital with no memory. She doesn’t remember her husband Jay or her children Sammie and Mattie. She still has language – she can read – but the words for objects have gone. This is the exciting premise of Belinda Aycrigg’s first novel, written during the Master’s of Creative Writing programme at Auckland University of Technology. The dream that almost every writing student has was realised when one of her external examiners wanted to publish her book. It’s an ambitious debut.
Aycrigg is writing a character who is a blank slate and trying to use language in a different way to describe the world around us. When Amalia gets in the car to leave hospital with her family, she refers to the vehicle as a creature and wonders at its ‘round black feet and soft belly’. At times I found these descriptions a little overwrought. Rather than concrete, specific descriptions, an orange was an ‘orange globe’, keys are an ‘amulet’, trousers are ‘leg coverings’, and she refers to her son’s ‘brow glowers’, which I guess are his eyebrows. There’s an overuse of the word ‘parchment’. While I appreciate the challenge and inventiveness of the premise Aycrigg sets up at the start of the novel, at times the language comes at the expense of clarity and engagement.
Amalia’s parents, Nani and the Professor, help Jay with the children, but there are differences of opinion as to how the children should be cared for and what will help Amalia recover her memory. The Professor represents science and reason, whereas Jay, and to some extent Nani, look to alternative medicine to heal Amalia.
Amalia and Jay have been living ‘off the grid’ some distance from the city. They have enrolled the kids in alternative pre-schools and schools, don’t believe in vaccinations or medication, have an affinity with animals and a general suspicion of all institutions. While their lifestyle before Amalia’s fugue already offered an implicit criticism of the structures that infiltrate our lives, this is escalated when Amalia, who now refers to herself as Kali, leaves hospital. Her affinity with animals is embodied: when she eats ice cream she can feel the cow’s pain at producing cream. At one point she releases ‘a tiny furry baby with a miniature human face and round, terrified eyes’, which I think is the monkey her father is using for research. She can talk to animals, and at the Easter Show she transforms into a cow. Kali can also fly off to another realm – she takes the kids to see the tooth fairy – and there are several episodes in which she disappears, much to her family’s distress.
CYPS (Children and Young Persons Service) gets involved with the family, and two caseworkers visit them at the farm. One is a clichéd, hard-boiled professional who has worked for CYPS for years, and the other is a family friend who’s pretending she doesn’t know them in order to protect them. Jay makes a throwaway joke about a P-lab on the property, which seems to be taken way too seriously given there’s no evidence of it at their house. While this episode draws on our sense of protectiveness for the family and Jay’s frustration that government institutions don’t allow for alternative lifestyles, if the reader doesn’t believe in the family’s politics they may agree with the CYPS approach. Much of the novel, and whether you’re persuaded by it, depends on whether you agree with the family’s life choices that are, at times, stridently portrayed.
The Vedic culture that underlies the novel was the religion of an ancient Indo-European-speaking people who came to India around 1500BCE. The Vedic tradition informed Hinduism, and the churning of the Ocean of Milk is the ever-continuing struggle between the gods and the demons, or titans. This struggle happens in the last quarter of the novel as Kali joins forces with others to set things right. Unfortunately, that’s the point at which I lost the logic of the plot and what the author was trying to achieve. While I’m happy to be taken off into another realm, at times the basics of who was doing what, and why, was hard to grasp.
The novel critiques the way we live in a time when we need to focus on sustainability and attempt to lessen the impacts of climate change. The novel is also concerned with how we care for children, women and animals. These are, of course, important messages, but if you want readers to come along with you on the journey, the writing needs to be clear. At times, scenes in Ocean of Milk just felt too intangible for me to take anything from them. Perhaps this lies in my not having a greater understanding of Vedic culture and its relationship to Hinduism (perhaps there’s a link between the overuse of the word parchment and ancient texts). The character Dean, who is a spiritual teacher and who might have informed the reader about Vedic culture along the way, appears only at the beginning and towards the end of the novel.
The reader is offered snippets of what life was like before Kali’s fugue state. There is talk of her depression and isolation, which I would have liked to see more of so that the contrast after the fugue was heightened (though there would be an issue of perspective, since she can’t remember anything). The novel also tackles questions about our education system (Aycrigg has taught in primary schools), and this and the issue of how we treat animals could perhaps have been investigated more fully. These are vital problems that Vedic culture, and perhaps more broadly Hinduism, may have answers for, but we’re not given them – instead, we’re given a fantastical ending where the plot seems to unravel.
While some could say Ocean of Milk is in the genre of magical realism, in that it’s set in the real world with influences from ancient traditions, I think it is, instead, another way of seeing the real. It attempts to show us another way of being which, unfortunately for me, missed the mark.
REBECCA STYLES has completed a PhD in creative writing at Massey University, where she wrote a novel based on an ancestor’s experience of mental illness at Seacliff Asylum. She has had short stories published in New Zealand journals and anthologies, and teaches short story writing at Wellington High School Community Education Centre.