Arms & Legs by Chloe Lane (Te Herenga Waka University Press, 2022), 208pp, $30
‘Just arms and legs. It’s not worth a damn.’ Halfway through Chloe Lane’s new novel, our narrator, Georgie, recalls these words used by a character in a short story by Mississippi writer, Barry Hannah, to describe the dismal sex of an old affair. Her husband Dan repeats these words, reciting the lines with a finality, Georgie says, ‘that made me think with a certainty I’d always had in a way, but here it was with literary emphasis, that Dan would never cheat on me’. That certainty is not reciprocated.
Nine pages later, at a casual dinner with friends, squeezed between her husband and her lover Jason, Georgie becomes aware of the arms and legs on the bench: ‘There were Dan’s arms and legs, my right side pressed against his left side, as was normal and expected, but my left side—it was as if I’d forgotten how to use that share of my body. I didn’t know where to put my hand, or how to angle that foot … I felt myself bottoming out.’
That low-level grumble of anxiety, of bottoming out, disconnecting, falling through the gaps in a fraying marriage in a clumsy and not entirely explicable tangle of arms and legs, wafts through the book like the smoke billowing from a burning patch of forest on the hills above the university town in Florida where Georgie, 36, lives with Dan and her two-year-old son Finn. The day before the dinner party, Georgie is participating in a prescribed burn (planned burns are a common fire prevention tool used in Florida’s woodlands) when she comes across the decayed and decaying remains of a body. This is presumably that of Calvin, the missing 20-year-old engineering student who participated briefly in Georgie’s writing class at the local university. It is a grisly scene, she registers, self-consciously tapping into the vernacular of old TV crime shows, ‘grisly, but also gristly’. But the discovery haunts her, ratchetting up the anxiety that threatens to destabilise her life as a wife and young mother, igniting a kind of dull dread that permeates her story.
The discovery and its repercussions trigger disturbing memories from her childhood and young adulthood in New Zealand: getting lost in the forest with her brother as a young child; a fatal attack by a tiger shark at her local beach; a fire that rips through the hills above the family home; the suicide of a girl in her school classics class; the terror of running down a seemingly endless long dark bus tunnel as a young woman, drunk and angry; jumping off the rocks into the sea in an act of superficial bravado—‘It scared me to death to do those things’. Now, as she emerges from the all-consuming exhaustion and preoccupations of new motherhood, as she tests the waters of new-found sexual pleasure in her relationship with Jason and tries to both escape and confront the horrifying spectacle of a young, decomposing body, that vague sense of unease stretches and exposes again the vulnerability of her seemingly secure world.
It is there in the landscape, in the slightly terrifying visit by an invalid raccoon, the termite infestations, alligator tracks, turkey vultures, squadrons of armadillos, the creepy step of a wandering egret, warning signs of bears and panthers, even the forests themselves, ‘probably overflowing with decomposing corpses’. She and Dan chose the ‘murkiness and potential of a Florida swamp’ over the predictable path they saw mapped out for them in New Zealand. Living in a place surrounded by these threats, she reasons, ‘made me feel like I was living a bold life. Every day I was facing my fears by just being and walking around amongst them.’
Now, that boldness is dissipating, revealing the suddenly fragile scaffolding of Georgie’s small family. As a parent, she says, she does not want to be a nervous mother—‘one who kept her kid on a leash so short it cut in and hurt in other ways’. But now, as she mulls over the events that may have led to Calvin’s death, she is fearful not only for her son’s future but also of losing Jason, Dan, and her independence. ‘Everything that had felt good and secure about [Dan], the things that I believed I still needed, didn’t want to not have, all those nautical ropes tied up in lovely tight knots, I also needed to be free of. I wanted to slide my feet across the deck of that boat—my boat—reach down, undo those ropes, and let them fall away.’ This possibility pulls at the loosening weave of her eight-year marriage, sharpening the tiny shafts of disaffection that have already perforated the fabric of their relationship. In the opening pages of the book, Finn falls and breaks his two front teeth while under Dan’s watch. ‘Finn falling, Dan shook up and shouldering it all, had resulted in an unexpected softening of my load that momentarily made me feel unworried, thrillingly careless.’
After Dan fails to spot a bald eagle through her binoculars, Georgie keeps a second sighting to herself. ‘It was partially the thought of having to deal with Dan and the binoculars again, sensing how easily that might boil over, but that wasn’t all. I also suddenly wanted to keep the eagle for myself.’ Bit by bit, small cut by small cut, Georgie’s secrets and Dan’s silences pervade the assumed bonds of their relationship. She does not tell Dan immediately about her ‘grisly’ discovery; he does not tell her that he knows about her affair with Jason.
Lane is an evocative writer with an impressive backstory. Now teaching at Hagley Writers’ Institute in Ōtautahi Christchurch, she holds an MFA in Fiction from the University of Florida, an MA from the International Institute of Modern Letters, and a BFA from Elam School of Fine Arts. She was the founding publisher and editor of Hue + Cry Press and is an associate editor at Contemporary HUM. Her first novel, The Swimmers (2020)—begun when Lane was living in Florida with her partner and 20-month-old son—was longlisted for the 2021 Ockham NZ Book Awards.
Arms & Legs, her second book, is a disarming if strangely distracted story, as if the obfuscating smoke of that first prescribed burn, both revealing and concealing the mouldering remains of young Calvin, continues to destabilise not just the lives of her characters but also the plot itself. Visibility, at times, is poor. Constant detours in Georgie’s account divert the storyline down the byways of childhood memories and early scenes in Georgie and Dan’s relationship. Even at pivotal moments, her thoughts wander, like unfenced geese or gusts of smoke.
When facing Calvin’s parents, in an impulsive but misguided plan to share the story of her discovery, we are suddenly side-tracked by her memory of her son’s birth. Standing with Dan and Finn at the home of their rescuer after their car breaks down, her thoughts stray to the previous evening with her lover: ‘These memories swarmed up over me like an organisation of fire ants, sharp and diverting.’ Although Georgie is partly responsible for a sliver of plastic (or eggshell) scoring Dan’s eye, the escalation of this injury seems to surprise her: ‘I keep forgetting about his eye and having to remember the whole thing all over again. There was something wrong with me. Why was it easy for me to forget about Dan? Had I always been like this?’ This feeling of untetheredness permeates the story. Like the smoke washing over the dead body in the Florida forest, Georgie’s prevailing air of distraction never fully clears. It muddies her judgement, blurs her relationships, and tips her into a state of near panic. It also seems to permeate the other characters—both Dan and Jason grapple with their own doubts and uncertainties as if they too are trying to find a way through the smoking forest.
By the end of the book (this is not a spoiler), Georgie is back in the fug of another planned burn, appearing and disappearing under a wall of smoke, testing her voice against her fear. Despite the haze and the at-times meandering storyline, the constant detours and deviations that boycott Georgie’s—and our—engagement with the here and now, Lane manages to hold us to the trajectory of her story. Georgie’s distracted thoughts and the inconstancy of her desires are held together by her finely and sympathetically drawn portrait of the minutiae of early parenthood—the friendships, frustrations and shared meals, the inevitable concerns over Finn’s slowness of speech, his sleep needs, his demands and sweet hugs—and the neighbourhood itself, with its swimming pools, cookouts, fenceless front lawns, even the vaguely menacing invalid raccoon. Against Georgie’s straying thoughts, this bedrock of suburban life makes for a convincing backdrop from which to explore the impact of the discovered body on the fragility of Georgie and Dan’s relationship.
SALLY BLUNDELL is a freelance journalist and writer in Ōtautahi Christchurch. She holds a PhD from the University of Canterbury. She was books and culture editor for the NZ Listener and a judge (fiction) in the 2018 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards. Her book Ravenscar House: A Biography was published in 2022 by Canterbury University Press.