The Reed Warbler by Ian Wedde (Victoria University Press, 2020), 624 pp., $35
Beyond the daunting double whammy of The Reed Warbler’s intricate introductory family tree and the opening words of the blurb (‘Pregnant after rape …’), Ian Wedde breathes life into seven generations, their complex inter-relationships, and individual lives, observations and desires. Early on he gives a sympathetic nod to readers after slinging a welter of names our way following a family reunion, acknowledging the vertigo induced by complex, tangled family histories. Beth, the ‘girl-swot’ family historian, isn’t sick from her cousin Frank’s driving through the Kaitīeke Valley, but ‘rather felt a bit sick from the winding around of names’. Yet even with a complex opening, from this point onward there is no more motion sickness. The Reed Warbler is a finely crafted triptych of a novel: three parts composed of interwoven stitches in time.
Josephina Hansen, the central matriarch of the novel, is a childless young woman when we meet her in rural northern Germany: a gifted seamstress and the hope of her family for upward social mobility. After she is raped by a client’s husband and disowned by her parents, Josephina’s refusal to give up the resulting baby, Catharina, is the decision at the core of the novel and the catalyst for all subsequent change and migration. Through Josephina we feel the energising, emancipatory power of decision-making. She is clear that she needs three things: Catharina, the ‘Oma’ (a sewing sampler made by and named after her grandmother) and literacy. Through sheer determination, and with the help of others, she succeeds on all three fronts. It is so (too?) refreshing to read a female character thinking about and so clearly articulating—both to herself and to others—what she wants. It is a shame the triggers are rape and family rejection. In her parents’ pitiless letters, Josephina is denied both the baptismal names of her daughter (‘You had no right to take those names for your child’) and the Oma. Josephina’s rape, her trauma and her desires are silenced. Her parents only recognise the ‘grief and trouble’ she has inflicted upon her family. It is an awfully familiar, familiarly awful trope: victim-blaming. Her parents regret ‘the door … to the life they deserved’ closing on them due to Josephina’s violation—but not the sexual violence itself. Instead of supporting Josephina, they resent their daughter as agent provocateur, as denier of their advancement. Mercifully, Josephina’s beloved sister Elke sneaks the Oma to her. And Catharina’s Christian names are hers forever.
A smart, resilient and talented woman, Josephina harnesses her anger into worthwhile goals, using anger as fuel for life-improving action and decision-making. Elke is also angry at their parents’ misplaced social climbing disappointment, but her anger manifests differently on the page. Elke’s ‘angry black thought-clouds’ are long streams of consciousness, sentences spanning two or three pages. She possesses a busy other-oriented mind and thinks in long, multi-hyphenated paragraphs, her gasping furious thoughts uninterrupted by full stops.
Interweaving Josephina’s narrative with the volatile dynamic between her descendants, Beth and Frank, Wedde draws out the exhaustion of tripping down memory lane, which inevitably involves chronological, geographical, perspectival and speculative leaps and bounds. Frank is the Chandler Bing of The Reed Warbler: we never really know what his job is. Beth is less mysterious: she is earnest, a loving grandmother, a grieving widow and retired professor of all things German. Strictly speaking, Beth and Frank are second cousins, and it takes a while to wrap your head around their relationship. Sometimes Frank is nasty to Beth, swearing at his cousin and trashing her interest in their shared ancestry. Other times he is lovely, self-consciously laddish, endearing. Although she adores him, Beth tires of Frank’s moodiness and the jolt of ‘sliding between a then and a now’.
Wedde’s maypole narratives, ribbons swirling around the central figure of Josephina, fortunately do not have the same fatiguing effect. We travel far—in time, place, perspective and possibility—without having to abandon the book, as Beth does her beer and cyclothymic cousin.
Mainly through Beth and Josephina, Wedde explores the felt, residual passage of time: how the past presses on the heart, constricting and filling the chest; how the past shunts you forward. The propulsive forces of rape, childbirth and her chosen responsibility push Josephina to make a chain of decisions, leading her to move first to first to Sønderborg, then to Hamburg, and finally to Wellington: ‘And so it was once again the consequence of her past that arrived first at the threshold of the future that kept moving her on, and when would she overtake that past … and go beyond it?’
Questions—both asked and unasked—are heavily and effectively personified throughout The Reed Warbler. They serve as pressure points, torqueing this way and that, demanding to be asked, answered, processed. Often, ‘conversation bulged with the pressure of the unasked and unanswered questions, like the sails of the ship bulging and quivering with the pressure of the invisible wind’. This latent dialogical pressure is always connected to the directional, almost overwhelming, pressure of the past. Perhaps we can cloak Josephina in words Wedde wrote long ago about Rita Angus, a woman who ‘lives in the past, but the past as a drape from within which she narrowly eyes herself in the present’.1 Both Josephina and Beth speak of needing ‘a clear space to go forward into. It had to be a space that hadn’t been gatecrashed by the past.’ The ostensibly empty space of New Zealand provided Josephina with room to ‘revise’ and ‘republish’ herself, her story, her family’s future. Josephina clearly emulates the Rohrsänger stitched onto the Oma: the little reed warblers who migrate from German marshlands to ‘a nice warm place … where oranges come from’. In 1879 Josephina and Catharina emigrate to New Zealand, fleeing political persecution in Hamburg. (As Kim Hill cannily observed, it’s a kind of The Godwits Fly in reverse.2) Migratory, unburdened, flying from stale grief-stricken pasts to orange-scented orange-spaced futures. But of course, the whenua was not empty, and there are disappointingly few references to tangata whenua in the text.
Meanwhile, Josephina’s past-burdened heart constricts several times, most beautifully when she falls in love with Wolf Bloch, a German socialist, radical newspaper editor and (abysmal) amateur poet. In an online discovery that would be familiarly thrilling for any historians, especially genealogists, Beth learns that Bloch was a friend and correspondent of Friedrich Engels. Bloch is a political and physical carbon copy of the Marxist political theorist Antonio Gramsci. And it is with Wolf that Wedde opens the book—and Josephina—to new possibilities, for Wolf and his sister Theodora (also quietly in love with Josephina) literally expand Josephina’s horizons, both by valuing her ways of knowing and encouraging her to emigrate with them.
If Josephina’s political horizons are being pushed outward and forward, so too is her rare sensory perception of the world. Her literacy unfolds as well, from stumbling early attempts to elegant letters. But Josephina also has a special textile literacy; she is instinctively more fluent in the threads, totems and woven messages of the Oma than the morality tales of Sunday school and her limited primary schooling. Somehow, her gifts are rooted in synaesthesia. Look, smell, taste, touch, hear: all her senses intermingle, embellish and expand one another in ways that other people do not experience and can only marvel at (if they perceive it at all). Josephina envisages her family’s future as fragrance, smells it as a vision: ‘where they were going together … was a place but it was also the future and she had its fresh smell on her fingers, it was the smell of an orange’. As Theodora observes, there is ‘a poet in that small body that can hardly contain what it perceives and feels … It is as though the space between the phenomena her body encounters and her perception of them is filled with transformations.’ In Theodora’s smitten, rhapsodic analysis, Josephina’s transformative gift enables her to ‘make her own kind of sense of an incommensurate world’. Her synaesthesia is never labelled as such, but Elke revels in her sister’s ability to make ‘pictures with words that mixed up how things looked and how they smelled or tasted or moved like the bees in their summer flights’.
The reader cannot help but be delighted: of course Josephina grafted herself onto the Oma; of course it spoke volumes to her; of course she’s a master of this tactile storytelling art. While blessed with the ability to see songs, to smell the future, Josephina is painfully aware of hierarchies of knowledge, especially when surrounded by the Blochs’ intellectual set in Hamburg, who ‘had ways of knowing that she didn’t know about’. But her friends recognised her intelligence and strength, and saw that the Oma itself was an encyclopaedia: a map of different, equally valid ways of knowing.
If the Oma lives at the centre of Josephina’s life, so too does the very idea of material culture. Beth wonders at the agency, ongoing-ness and time-confounding powers of mere things. Outliving, outlasting and out-functioning generations of humans, material objects can ‘amaze us with their ability to make nonsense of time’. Things are insentient but not immaterial, in any sense. Wedde’s magic is to show how this materiality is not limited to books, journals or any forms of text, but is mysteriously held in the simplest of objects: a threadbare shawl, the Oma. Things are inanimate but animating, as shown by Beth’s archival fever. When reading Theodora’s journals, Beth feels connected to her: ‘And then in the next paragraph she encountered the Germanish “stress and storm of life” and knew who she was listening to, and wished she could have been talking to, and was perhaps almost talking to, across the collapsed space of more than a century.’
Wedde is excellent when dealing with the human panoply of small-mindedness and petty evil. He paints a wide (mainly female) emotional range, from microaggressions and straight-lipped smiles to epistolary confessions of homosexual love. Wedde writes unselfconsciously about the ‘thought-fog’ of new motherhood, the engrossing, all-vanquishing ‘bliss-fog’ of rapturous love, but also captures the drudgery and physical pain of women’s lives in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, from backbreaking farm labour to cottage industry, childbirth and childcare. Scaling up, he deftly captures the personal as political. After the fresh ocean spray of Sønderborg, the muck and press of people in industrialising Hamburg are palpable. So, too, is the social segregation by wealth. On the voyage out, Wolf wrote optimistically that the ship’s microcosmic power imbalances and class relations would be better in the New World than the Old. This misdiagnosis was proven wrong almost immediately, and has a grim dissonance in Aotearoa today. As Theodora noted, ‘the inbred hostilities of the Old Homeland have already been transplanted to the New Homeland and await the arrival of fresh recruits’. Wedde brilliantly captures the nationalist, religious and class tensions simmering away aboard ship—although between Danes, Germans and Ostjuden, rather than the English/Scots/Irish fissures most New Zealand history books deal with.
Wedde overuses scare quotes and forgoes quotation marks, blurring the contours of dialogue and thought. Conversations are thus a blend of inner monologue and words spoken aloud, and it’s occasionally hard to know what content is shared and what is held within. There’s a little too much regurgitation of Beth’s ‘forensic looking’ through verbatim reproduction of semi-fictional historical documents (admittedly subpar poetry, film reviews, feminist socialist tracts, etc). This is especially jarring, given the decision not to reproduce any of the land settlement documentation regarding Kaitīeke Valley, or to discuss this process at all. Where are the settler land ballots that allowed Wolf Bloch Jr to colonise and farm land taken from Māori? ‘They have a river? … They have a hill?’ young Greta asks, incredulous and amazed at her family’s sudden land-wealth. I’m incredulous, too. I’m sure tangata whenua still are.
Despite these shortcomings, this novel offers wonderful expositions and juxtapositions. For example, Wolf’s cerebral musings on ‘an erotics of thought’—spanning Flaubert, Descartes, Hegel and Engels on the incongruity of physical and intellectual gratification—contrast sharply with Frank’s ruddy vernacular. Although this former poet laureate seems too gifted a wordsmith to use words like ‘manky’, Wedde uses Australian and New Zealand slang with aplomb. Comfortably spanning the hi- to lowbrow, Wedde plays with everything in this remarkable novel: mediocre wines; supermarket paralysis; the pseudo-scientific labelling on anti-ageing creams; the nature of time, memory, and the past; colonial-era homophobia; and the wartime civilian’s proximity to violence, nationalism and both legislative and random acts of xenophobic hatred. From post-unification Germany to present-day Aotearoa, Wedde shows that we are ever on a knife edge, parsing the blade.
EMMA GATTEY is a writer and critic from Ōtautahi. She is studying global and imperial history at Oxford University.