All This By Chance by Vincent O’Sullivan (Victoria University Press, 2018), 335pp., $35
Readers do not need to finish the first paragraph of this novel before they find themselves succumbing to the authority of an accomplished storyteller. Sinking into Vincent O’Sullivan’s prose is like sliding into a Rotorua pool; once enveloped you become more a participant than a reader, soaking up details rather than heeding them. It is only afterwards, when you begin reflecting, that you wonder what actually happened. Like when life has delivered you an event that you realise is more than the sum of its parts, and you look back to try to discover the nature of those parts and their connections – as, from time to time, O’Sullivan’s characters themselves are compelled to do. This ability to lead readers to involve themselves in the story almost as deeply as the characters contributes immensely towards Vincent O’Sullivan’s achievement.
All This By Chance covers three generations of a family, how the outside world has severely influenced their personalities, relationships and fortunes, and how they manage their memories of the past. In this case, the past that weighs on them is the German Nazi regime’s mass murder, in its concentration camps, of millions of people, roughly half of them Jews. Judging by what we are told about events leading up to the marriage of Stephen and Eva, the Ross family would have been otherwise ‘normal’ people wholly at home in their Auckland middle-class suburb, unaffected, as the majority of such people are, by the political upheavals that sweep the rest of the world from time to time. Vincent O’Sullivan ably depicts how each member of the Ross family is affected according to their personality and particular circumstances. They each have issues they do not want to share with the others, but at the same time have no option but to recognise that they are all bonded.
Babcia, the first-generation aunt, survived death in Ravensbruck, the notorious camp for women 90km north of Berlin. Now an amnesiac, she personifies the past that is haunting the family. Stephen, whose only connection with her is through his wife, is of the second generation. Father of Lisa and grandfather of David, Stephen is a shy, retiring man, the sort who doesn’t talk about his feelings. Although initially awakened by his first real love, he withdraws again with the arrival of Babcia. When asked to explain this, he replies that his memory ‘was not a tide that went out and then returned. It became a sea that did not exist.’ Eva, the woman he loves and marries, also buries her memories, not only of her childhood but going so far as to refuse to provide information when a holocaust researcher calls. Their daughter Lisa, although superficially at ease socially, is most at home in a research laboratory or a library and keeps a tight control over her life outside them – until she feels morally impelled to make a ‘real world’ decision that goes beyond the limits she has set. Her brother, in contrast, appears very much a ‘real world’ man and is building up a successful business. Concomitant with this, he has an obsession to build up a bank of information about his forbears. His daughter, however, assisted by the passage of time and more open to people, is able to go a long way towards arriving at a reconciliation with the past.
Of the two others who narrate a chapter, one interesting choice of character is a Jehovah’s Witness woman – a reminder that the Nazis cast a broad net in their hunt to dispose of those they considered deviant. A fellow survivor of Ravensbruck, and at one with Babcia, the woman is nevertheless wary of recalling lost memories. The other narrator is a crass reprobate linked to Lisa who, because of his self-centredness, when his memory is taxed is unable to comprehend the story he tells.
Most chapters are narrated in the third person by one character during a single year and mostly in a particular locality. The years range from 1938 to 2004 and, with one exception, the chapters follow each other sequentially. Sometimes the time gap between chapters is a year, but between others it is over twenty. The writing in each chapter reflects the feelings and personality of the narrator and also the ambience of the place and time of the events. London, as described by Stephen in 1947, is an oppressively grey, stinking city, its inhabitants still browbeaten by the war, a place to get out of – quite different to the yuppy London Lisa writes about from her South Kensington room thirty-one years later. And when Lisa portrays her hedonistic and ‘banal’ sojourn in 1968 Greece – which is on the brink of a coup by the ‘colonels’, and where people are already wary of what they say and, if they do speak, you are never sure whether they are lying – you do not doubt her veracity.
Especially evocative is the 1938 chapter, which recreates what it was like to be a member of a Jewish community in Nazi Germany. The threat of avalanche is already rumbling, the Jewish people know it is about to break, and they live with the terrifying uncertainty of what to do, who to take notice of, and whether those they have trusted all their lives can be trusted now. But is this chapter really necessary? Or does it just add details to give satisfaction to the fact gatherers; a coda for the curious? Whatever the individual reader concludes, the chapter is a powerful read in its own right.
The writing style for each chapter also matches the mood of the events recounted. This is especially evident in one sequence where a crime is being committed: everything, it appears to the perpetrators, is going according to plan, but the reader becomes aware that something is not right. The prose has tensed and its pace has quickened – it is a piece of writing that would be completely at home in a crime thriller.
Given the diversity of narrators, dates and places, let alone the length of time between some of the chapters, it might be expected that the reader will be in for a bumpy ride. One of the reasons it remains smooth is that O’Sullivan rarely strays from his plot: each chapter contributes to the reader’s knowledge of the effects particular incidents have had on the family, and each, with the necessary exceptions of the first and last, binds into a continuous flow. What also contributes to this continuity is something that might normally detract from it: breaking the book up into particular years. But the writing is so absorbing that you can’t help entering into the domain O’Sullivan has created. The result, as far as the reader is concerned, might be summed up by William Faulkner’s epigram: ‘The past is never dead. It is not even past.’ Which, of course, also applies to the characters themselves. They cannot escape the past; whether they like it or not they are trapped in it despite being doomed never to know its entirety.
And was all this by chance? That depends. The reasons for Stephen going to England, and thus to meet his future wife, were not only to escape the dull conformity of New Zealand at the time but also to get away from his father, who was so mentally afflicted by his service in Europe in World War I that he eventually died in restraint. Given his fate and that of the two generations of the Ross family that followed, one does not have to be a dedicated fan of Henry James to deduce that here we go again, another story – but no less authentic for that – of the perilous consequences when new world innocence ventures into involvement with the old. Only the fourth generation, perhaps, possessed of the accumulation of generational knowledge along with increased and closer relationships developed internationally over the years (a spinoff of globalisation?), possesses the wherewithal to integrate into the sophistication of the old.
Whatever the conclusion on chance or intergenerational destiny, Vincent O’Sullivan has written one of our finest novels.
RAY GROVER was a novelist and historian. He had a 30-year career in archives, starting at the Alexander Turnbull Library in 1959 under John Reece-Cole, and became chief archivist of National Archives in 1981. His novel Cork of War was set in the tumultuous Te Rauparaha era of the 1830s and 40s. In 1983 Cork of War won the non-fiction award in New Zealand’s National Book Award. Ray Grover died in 2019. His scholarship and kindness are already missed.