Come Back to Mona Vale: Life and death in a Christchurch mansion, by Alexander McKinnon (Otago University Press, 2021), 335pp, $40
In film, one of the most effective ways to build tension is to frame a shot around something that is not there. In a two-shot with only one person, the eye is drawn relentlessly to the yawning space next to them, which cries out for balance. The root of horror is in this absence, in the certainty that there should be something with no further explanation. The more developed the structure in which the absence is embedded, the more viscerally it will be felt.
Come Back to Mona Vale is a story about absence, told in absences. It is the first book by Alexander McKinnon, winner of the 2020 Landfall essay competition. The book relates the author’s journey to assemble a narrative of his own family, beginning with his great-grandfather, the last private owner of the Christchurch estate Mona Vale. Written over seven years, it charts the author’s exploration of his mother’s family history, from the legal and financial complexities left behind by his great-grandfather, to the personal lives of multiple generations now dead.
The style and structure of the book echo the Gothic architecture of Christchurch itself. There is a sensible solidity and a methodical quality, one stone neatly placed upon another in the building of a greater whole. Where a new piece of information leads to a dead end, this is followed through with the same attention to detail as those documents or revelations with direct impact on the narrative. If this were a novel, the slow start, numerous red herrings and loose ends would feel unfocused. It isn’t a novel, though, and grooming its component parts into a story with a clear beginning, middle and end would make it into something fundamentally different. As it stands, the organic sprawl of it is part of the process, is part of the final outcome of the book.
As he worked to turn his collected investigations into a book, McKinnon studied both memoir and detective fiction. There is a sense throughout that McKinnon is searching not just for truth but for a coherent structure into which all these pieces can fit. It would have been easy to lean into a detective fiction-inspired style, to allow the dead to settle into the roles of protagonist and antagonist, to fill in the gaps with the logic of narrative causality. Instead, McKinnon’s engagement with the form comes in forcing himself to systematically avert it, to let the uncertainty remain; some documents are never found, some lines of questioning go nowhere, some people die without sharing all they knew. It reminds me in many ways of an oral history, a mode in which the process of telling is as much a part of the finished work as the story itself, and the listener is an equal partner in the act of creation.
I’m aware that my own experience of reading this book was overwhelmingly shaped by the fact that I grew up in Christchurch. My grandparents lived down the road from Mona Vale, and I used to attend writing classes in some of the buildings McKinnon so carefully describes. The book opens with description, ‘Christchurch sits at the far edge of a ruled page at the bottom of the world … it’s a city of tall trees, small streams and changing seasons’, and immediately I am wandering slowly through this familiar place with a companion, each of us pointing out the details to one another. For readers with no knowledge of the city, the expanse of quiet and measured detail that makes up the substantial first section of the book might feel overlong; one building can at first be much like another in an unfamiliar place.
Accompanying the author through his historical investigations in this way inevitably turns all the questions back on the self. I found myself asking the book’s questions of my own family: if that happened to us, what would my mother do? My brother? The specificity of this single family expands out to contemplation of all families. I turn the author’s questions on myself over and over as he patiently follows one thread, and then the next. But McKinnon also draws connections to the stories of other homes and families, both historical and fictional. Images from Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle—the house destroyed, the sisters’ lives shrinking into the one remaining room—are brought up in the context of the aftermath of the Christchurch earthquakes. Jackson’s novella and the other texts McKinnon chooses to reference (Edgar Allan Poe’s poem, ‘The Haunted Palace’, Haruki Murakami’s essay, ‘Abandoning a Cat’), often imply a more profound sadness or dysfunction than he describes directly. The Poe verse that opens McKinnon’s book begins with ‘evil things, in robes of sorrow’ and ends with ‘the glory / that blushed and bloomed / is but a dim-remembered story / of the old time entombed’.
From this beginning, we are presented with the idea of storytelling through the edges of an absence. As we move from a remembered childhood into an adult’s pursuit of missing pieces, the first steps McKinnon takes into the story are largely steps into empty space: Why have I never heard of this person before? Why do I know so little about this man? Many of the facts that emerge from the ensuing interrogation are quietly horrifying. Many of the gaps are even more so. A mysterious aunt disappears into a mental hospital—we know from the stories of others that these were cruel places, but all McKinnon finds are scant and intermittent medical notes. The not-knowing is sickening, and even more so for the fact that there is no way to fill in the gaps further once McKinnon has exhausted his leads. The book is the story of the author’s ongoing attempt to come to terms with an irretrievable loss, not only of individuals, but of their stories too. No amount of digging will ever turn up records that were never made or kept; absence becomes the site and source of horror.
As the gaps in the history are revealed, gaps begin to emerge in the relational architecture inhabited by the living. The generational planarity is striking: ‘I wish I’d spoken to [my grandmother] more about her life, their life—but I never would have. Even if I were magically the age I am now and knew what I know now, it just wouldn’t have suited the way we were. People tell you things if they want to, even if you’re not listening. But sometimes if they want to confide in someone, a stranger or a blank page is easier than a child or a grandson.’ Nevertheless, the author dives into research with his brother, echoing the collaboration of his grandmother and her sisters-in-law many years before. He describes this intergenerational silence as an act of love. ‘Silence can protect … silence kept this family safe from carrying [my grandfather’s] scars and resentments in perpetuity.’ Despite this, McKinnon has made the choice to share these stories both in this book and with his own children. The years of investigation and synthesis have brought these scraps of history together into a story, and a story can be told.
Canterbury Gothic, the essay with which McKinnon won the 2020 Landfall essay competition, draws on the same stories as Come Back to Mona Vale. I assumed initially that the book was an expansion of the winning essay but in fact it was the other way around: the essay is a contraction of this book, assembled all at once after the story was complete. Form dictates function here to an astonishing extent; it is the same story, or pieces of it, but could hardly be a more different literary experience. The essay feels like the real events have been used as a substrate for a primarily artistic work. The chronological leaps are sudden, the careful pruning and selection of details is evident. The process that defines the book isn’t there: the laborious, painstaking construction and reconstruction of a house, a life, a cathedral, a city, an identity, a story. The relationship that arises between author and reader is completely different. Details about McKinnon’s own life are relatively absent from both the book and the essay, but only in the book does this absence begin to cohere into a shape. Both book and essay are about the family story, but perhaps only the book is about Alexander McKinnon.
KERRY LANE is a poet, playwright and educator from Ōtepoti, now based in Glasgow.