The Ice Shelf by Anne Kennedy (Victoria University Press, 2018), 320pp., $30; The Bed-Making Competition by Anna Jackson (Brio Books, 2018), 112 pp., $17.99
Anne Kennedy is a household name in New Zealand letters. She’s been publishing compelling work since the late 80s and doesn’t show any sign of letting up. Her poetry, screenplays, novels and short stories have fetched various awards on these shores and beyond, and her movement between and across genres shows her dexterity and proclivity towards experimentation.
Her latest novel, The Ice Shelf, is pitched as an ‘eco-comedy’. A satirical and very welcome take on the NZ literary scene, The Ice Shelf tells the story of Janice, a ‘thirty-something’ writer, in the clutches of writing her second book and heavily involved in trying to make a name for herself in Wellington, the literary city par excellence. After a long and complicated break-up with Miles – her very NZ boyfriend, with his ‘startled yeah-nah … bet-each-way mannerisms’ – and a series of characteristic misfortunes, Janice finds herself homeless on the eve of her departure for Antarctica, where she’s been selected to take up a prestigious arts fellowship. The novel accompanies her on this long and quite tortuous evening, as she fills in the backstory behind the tragi-comic events that have come to pass – and why, exactly, she is carting her green vintage fridge with her, a stalwart companion and a make-shift set of (once-icy) shelves for her novel-in-progress, The Ice Shelf. As the night – and the story – evolves, Janice sheds layers of her fragile self-worth and chapters from her novel, in equal measure.
Janice is a montage of all the people you’ve ever met who don’t understand social norms, mixed with a healthy dose of that very neoliberal phenomenon, the professional writer. With the inevitable online presence of the clever culturalista, Janice strategically remarks on her whereabouts in attending literary-related events, writes and posts the odd book review, retweets links to Guardian articles about melting ice shelves or the Pacific garbage patch, or uploads images of what she’s working on – the literary selfie, or ‘Me-with-Manuscript’. Kennedy cleverly concocts this character by using the first person: we only ever hear from Janice, and with all the power of the unreliable narrator, we seem to move through a relentless series of awkward moments and supreme fuck ups. Jobs are lost and relationships relentlessly destroyed, all while Janice works hard to convince herself and us that none of these misfortunes are her fault, and that beyond it all, she’s very grateful for all the hardship she’s had in her life – all the ingredients of a great writer, according to our protagonist.
Some of these unreliable instances are hilarious: when Janice drunkenly decides to perform some impromptu limericks at Miles’ wedding, or while she is working at the Glass Menagerie in Kelburn (where ‘Made in China’ stickers are replaced with ‘Made by a member of the Ngāti Manu tribe’). In the latter, she has something of a panic-attack-cum-cathartic-release and tips a loaded glass shelf vertical – ‘the debris was beautiful,’ she exclaims before weathering the wrath of her pashmina-wearing boss. But some of these moments are devastating events in Janice’s life, and inspire a shift in our understanding of her. Instead of being irritated by her, we start to empathise, even when Janice herself fails to take stock of the destructiveness of the events. The Janice-only narration gives the book a commanding degree of self-consciousness and allows Kennedy to develop this extraordinarily complex character, capable of perceptive and cutting observations by the dozen but equally fallible and full of contradictions.
There are several elements that lend the book an air of meta-fiction, beginning as it does under the guise of ‘Acknowledgements’. An innocent reader, I was completely deceived by this: I quickly began thinking to myself that this ‘I’ – who announces on page 7 that they would ‘first and foremost’ like to thank ‘the person who made all this possible’ – was Kennedy herself. After initially passing judgement about the utter indulgence of preceding the novel with what seemed to be a long string of thank yous, I started flicking through the pages only to see that they actually never end. That is, the whole book is written under this pretence; the ‘novel’ itself never begins. The whole way through, then, we get these reminders: ‘I have a heartfelt thank you to make to Dame Bev and will break off from my account of the awards ceremony here to do just that’ (the character of Dame Bev won’t be unfamiliar to most discerning readers); ‘I would like to extend my enormous thanks to Big Julie the Pig for offering me several invaluable experiences during my time in ENG 209.’ The novel is not a novel, but rather an exposition of the events that occur while Janice is working on a novel, under the ruse of acknowledging the people who helped her write a very thinly veiled autobiography called The Ice Shelf, no less. It’s a clever technique and, to my mind at least, a very original mode of storytelling. It messes with our expectations of what exactly a novel is and can be, and adds a performative aspect to the satire that underpins the genre in the first instance. But like all literary tricks, it runs the risk of getting a bit tired at times. Fortunately, Janice’s searing, backhanded banter makes up for these moments.
The Ice Shelf is full of LOLs, as Janice might say. It’s wiry and original, complexly layered and bloody hilarious, and probably the funniest NZ novel in decades. However, as brilliant as it is, Kennedy’s remarkable precision is let down by some shoddy editing. With grammatical, stylistic and spelling errors throughout, I found it hard at times to remain present in the fully dimensional world that Kennedy worked so hard to create. Don’t let that put you off – if you can ignore these, it’s well worth its salt.
With more than half a dozen poetry collections to her name, Anna Jackson is also a stalwart of NZ literature. Jackson is a scholar and poet predominantly, and she thanks editors of Glottis – the Dunedin literary journal from the 90s – for publishing her earliest forays into short fiction. Her return to the form (and this novella itself, parts of which were published in Glottis over twenty years ago) has been worthwhile, with The Bed-Making Competition winning the Australian Seizure Viva la Novella Prize in 2018.
As is often the case when poets turn their hand to fiction, The Bed-Making Competition is lyrical and spare. It tells a fragmented story of two sisters, Bridgid and Hillary, and their fluctuating, at times strained, relationship, over the course of twenty years. It begins in 1991 when Hillary, the younger, is at high school. Bridgid, who ‘comes out of her room’ occasionally, to ‘get something from the fridge or go to the loo’, is the very cool older sister who goes to university without actually ‘going’: ‘Do you ever go to university?’ asks Hillary. ‘No,’ replies Bridgid, but yes, of course she’ll pass, because ‘you just have to read the books to pass’.
In 1991 The Days of our Lives, The Smurfs and The Young Doctors are on TV during the day, so when Bridgid doesn’t go to uni because she doesn’t have to, and Hillary doesn’t go to school because Bridgid is at home, they have plenty to do. One day the girls’ mother leaves without explanation, which their father deals with by ordering in pizza. The next day, their dad leaves to go and convince their mum to come home – a reconnaissance that takes an unspecified number of days – leaving them his credit card and no instructions. The girls celebrate their freedom with Martinis and White Russians, and the following days pass in a haze of shopping for expensive Zambesi ‘apron things’, eating out with their friends and getting stoned at Bridgid’s friend’s house.
The ensuing chapters are a mix of Hillary and Bridgid’s perspectives and arrive like installations in the sisters’ annals. In 1994 we see Hillary hitchhiking down south somewhere to visit Bridgid. Told from Hillary’s perspective, we start to see some cracks appearing – Hillary can’t quite get things right and winds up eating pie and drinking wine at a stranger’s house, thinking that she’s arrived at her sister’s flat. Two years later we’re in Oxford; Bridgid is pregnant and Hillary is nowhere to be seen. Bridgid’s partner Rob is a non-committal, underpaid and misunderstood sculptor, who would rather spend their money on a holiday in Spain than in preparation for the baby. Hillary is around again by now, but she has a ‘scab on [her] head and veins in [her] arms and op-shop clothes’. In the penultimate chapter we skip forward to the turn of the millennium: Bridgid lives in Takapuna with her two children, Fred and Molly, goes to see Marian Evans read at the public library, and wins a bed-making competition at the Easter Show. Hillary is absent again. Finally, in 2011, Bridgid is at the bedside of their dying mother and Hillary arrives from Iowa, where she’s ‘gone back to school, to do creative writing’.
The chapters are small, stand-alone vignettes. They each offer an insight into the many sides, phases, relationships and challenges that make up a life. The result is a kaleidoscopic story, a tilting and turning narrative as portrait of these two women whose lives are not without complications and issues. Jackson has a remarkable way of saying without saying: we never really know what is going on for the women, but we get a sense of the complexities through her spare and sharp observations. In the final chapter, once Hillary arrives at the sickbed and the two sisters are reunited, the dynamics of old are reinstated. We hear it from Bridgid’s perspective here:
We plunged into our mother’s room in the hospital dropping our bags on the floor, whipping out the array of things we had bought from a delicatessen, two bakeries and a flower shop – not flowers, though we’d gone in for flowers, but raspberries and a mango that was far too messy to eat in a hospital. When the nurse came in, Hillary had her face in the mango with the bits of mango skin flapping around her cheeks, juice running down onto our mother’s bed because she was carefully leaning away from her own new clothes.
It’s that old thing of showing, not telling, and Jackson offers a masterclass of that creative writing adage here. This is the story of two sisters – their issues and foibles, their loss of innocence, their inability to escape their own narcissistic tendencies – told through the details that make up a life. Think Anne Enright’s psycho-noir, with a touch of Katherine Mansfield’s unreliability and a sliver of Emily Perkins’ sharp cultural commentary: Jackson’s novella is NZ realism, written with the skill of a deft and witty poet.
LYNLEY EDMEADES is the author of As the Verb Tenses (Otago University Press, 2016). Her second book of poems is forthcoming in 2020. She currently lectures on the English programme at the University of Otago.