No Second Chance, by Mark Stephenson (Steele Roberts, 2011) 268 pp. $29.99.
‘What was beyond that iridescent fringe, the interior of those islands on the edge of the world?’ Wonders Anna, aged eleven, while looking at the South Sea Islands in a book at her school in Austria. It is a hint of things to come… No Second Chanceis the first novel of Wellington medical doctor and British-Kiwi author Mark Stephenson. It is ostensibly a story about Anna Rosenberg’s struggle to overcome the many losses she suffered at the hands of the Nazis during WWII. The plot takes on a time-dancing form, flicking back and forth between Anna’s past and present.
There are some appealing character and place portraits that would make interesting reading for immigrant New Zealanders who might relate to Anna’s mix of trepidation, anticipation, and her impressions of a strange-looking Auckland when she arrives by boat in 1947 at the age of twenty: ‘Rang-ee-toe-toe’ said the man. ‘It reminded her of a story book volcano gone soft, subsiding and spreading out over the sea.’ Then upon her arrival at the corrugated iron clad customs shed in Auckland she noted that it looked: ‘…like a huge shed for cows’.
The blasé and ignorant references to her past by the customs man: ‘Hitler was Austrian wasn’t he?’ go some way towards encapsulating the relative isolation of New Zealand. The man then suggests that Anna change her name to “…something less German, perhaps?” And she willingly if not gladly becomes Anna Rosedale, and ‘…like Lot’s wife’ knows she must not look back.
It isn’t long before Anna moves from Auckland to Wellington to find the quiet remote lifestyle she craves: ‘In New Zealand a garden was not simply a piece of land, it seemed to be a basic need.’ And it is on the Wellington waterfront that she meets Des Morgan, a dockworker, who becomes her husband quite soon after. Anna spends the rest of her life with Des and they raise two children, Victoria and Brent, in a small house at Makoura Bay where ‘looking back’ becomes Anna’s main preoccupation.
No Second Chance is succinctly written and easy to read. The 44 very short chapters elicit a page-turning response as they slip back and forth between Anna’s past as a young Jewish girl incarcerated in the children’s section of Auschwitz, and her present as a New Zealander. But I was regularly left on a precipice at chapters’ end, because just when conflict or resolution is in sight, a new chapter commences leaving the previous conflict dangling. As a narrative device this can be a page-turner, but it can also lead to lack of deeper engagement with the story.
The dual development of Anna past and present is undermined by a lack of narrative grit in relation to her past. Much of the grisly Auschwitz stuff is insinuated, as if being toned down and left to reader assumption. But in order to care about Anna I needed to be shown the fullness of what troubles her, and get to know it further by the debilitating affect it has on her in the present. But in this novel, the present is mostly occupied by nicely written excerpts about Kiwi life to the extent that Anna’s grief is portioned into dedicated sections of narrative rather than being threaded throughout her character.
Anna was continually sexually violated at Auschwitz in her role as a ‘prominent’ (or favoured one). However, the story is centred in Anna’s New Zealand life, and not at a death camp. Therefore the foreign-ness and the liberties of life in NZ ‘should’ exacerbate her background issues — along with the idea that it doesn’t matter how far you remove yourself or to where, but that you take yourself with you. The trouble for Anna’s character as expressed in this narrative is that her time in Auschwitz remains remote and mysterious, and those awful life-draining years are largely unaccounted for which leaves a substantial hollow in the narrative—and a whole lot of questions.
There is definitely a
useful sense of alienation and belonging expressed in relation to Anna’s life in New Zealand, but she remains so capable, so social, and seems no more screwed up than your ‘run-of-the-mill’ troubled person.
Of course there can be great power in suggestion, and great power in treading carefully and respectfully around tragedies about which most people will have already heard plenty, but in order to maximise the contrasts and distances between past and present, or fact versus fantasy, the pain – Anna’s pain – might have been revealed more. She certainly lives a difficult life, haunted as she is by many losses, and she certainly and understandably tries to put distance between herself and that past, but I never had a handle on exactly what troubled her — until the last pages — other than what I could assume along the way.
There could have been more narrative emphasis given to the events and the pain around losing her family of origin, and about the enigmatic Rachel — a main cause of Anna’s guilt — and about the hunger, disease, death, fear, the corruption of her body, the destruction of her spirit, the ruin of her people, and then the shunning of her own Jewishness (her self) when she arrives in New Zealand.
In NZ, with two small children Anna lives out a desperate though deeply ironic desire to control her own offspring. The paradox is obvious: extreme control is punitive even if it is intended to create a safe environment; and much to Brent’s horror and annoyance Anna forbids him to play the dangerous game of rugby so that he might not suffer ‘like she did’. He disobeys her of course, and the rift between mother and son grows until it reaches its climax with an outburst of vitriol when Anna is invited by Brent to play chess. No one yet knows why Anna has this extreme reaction about such a seemingly innocuous invite, but all is eventually revealed, and what is revealed also helps make sense of the title of the book.
It is believable and justifiable that her children move away to Seattle and London as adults, and although on one hand moving away is a Kiwi rite of passage, their moving away reads more as an escape from their mother — especially for Brent. Anna experiences sadness and internal conflict as she misses her children, and these later chapters show an aging husband and wife alone with their deep and committed respect for each other, and these are some of the best chapters in the book.
The lovemaking and other moments of tenderness between Anna and Des in later chapters are beautifully written, showing a plainly profound love: ‘It was unseasonably warm and the sash window was up. The air tingled with salt. ‘I hear the sea,’ Anna said, tilting her head to listen. ‘It seems so near tonight.’ Her eyes reflected a gleam of light from the moon. She was lucid once more. They heard the creep of shingle in the bay and the beckoning of draw of a wave recalled by the ocean. ‘Yeah.’ His voice was a soft rasp in the dark.’
… But for the goodness of this present day intimacy to bloom as fully as possible in the narrative, the sexual abuse suffered in the past needs to be utterly terrible by contrast, but those grisly incidents seem tastefully glossed over or minimised, relying again on suggestion.
Anna’s troubles are mirrored somewhat in Des’s own post-wartime shell-shock, which helps him relate to her and enables the two of them to leave certain subjects alone. But the expectation that allusions to Anna’s troubles set up is not fully served. In fact, in relation to the potential of the issues explored and the emotional enormity of these, the very revealing last pages are, while nicely written, rather unfulfilling. I did find though that because I wanted more information about Anna’s past I kept reading in anticipation of finding that, and so, there is/was a useful magnetic pull through the book to the end.
The ‘Lot’s wife’ analogy mentioned earlier is most pertinent at Anna’s last fugue-like jaunt on her bike around Makoura, where she herself meets a salty end. And her childhood question has been answered: ‘What was beyond that iridescent fringe, the interior of those islands on the edge of the world?’ The answer is that her pain would follow her even to the end of the world. There was never going to be a second chance for Anna Rosenberg.
And it is only at the end, her end, that one can know Anna’s pain and that her suffering was not only about her fear, the ill treatment at the hands of the Nazis and the demise of her family, but about being forced to turn against a loved one: that is shown to be the ultimate form of torture.
TASHA HAINES has a Master of Fine Arts in Fine Arts from Elam at the University of Auckland. Formerly a lecturer in fine arts and design in Melbourne, she is now a writer, reviewer and tutor living in Wellington.
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