The Last Days of the National Costume, by Anne Kennedy, (Allen and Unwin, 2013), 388 pp., $37
In her novel The Last Days of the National Costume, Anne Kennedy has produced a sexy, authentic, and highly amusing page-turner, which certainly deserves the wide readership it has already attracted – judging by waiting lists of public libraries and enthusiastic word-of-mouth reports.
Auckland, 1998: a five-week power blackout, a listless clothes mender and a homemade Irish dress collide. Our cicerone to this delightful turn of events is GoGo, working under the memorable banner of Megan Sligo Mending and Alterations. A modern-day Penelope, she spends her days picking and unpicking spoiled clothes – or ‘relic[s] of infidelity’ – to keep the reality of her own unhappy marriage at bay.
The exciting stories told by the ripped and torn material offer a frisson missing from the mender’s own life. Having domesticated or ‘settled’ young, she is married to Art, a pretentious twit writing his PhD on Settler Literary Ephemera and relying on handouts from his wealthy family. Art is useful in one way, at least, since GoGo has adapted his mode of defining people by their study preoccupations (‘he’s Shakespeare’) in cataloguing her clientele by the manner of their garments’ disintegration (‘Teeth, sex’). Yet, though GoGo gloats that her job entails ‘an exquisite centrepiece of doing’ rather than just ‘thinking’, she is frozen in a marital stasis whilst her husband gets off with a ghastly poet named Glenda.
Enter ‘the client’, a wealthy banker with a troubled past, and GoGo’s monochromatic world shivers into colour. Their acquaintance begins when the other two angles of his love triangle visit her, seeking to repair an old dress: first ‘the mistress’, with her tartan Doc Martens and blithe indifference; then ‘the husband’ himself, with anxiety and sexual deviance written over his face; and, in an overlapping visit, ‘the wife’, sneering and impatient.
Coinciding with GoGo’s implication in this affair is the disconnection of power throughout central Auckland. Fascinated by the ‘electric current’ she feels when she and ‘the husband’ accidentally touch hands, she sets about weaving herself further into his life by prolonging her task. She encourages repeated visits from him, first by fabricating tales regarding the costume’s (in)completion, then by inevitably ripping a huge tear in the sleeve herself. As GoGo works, she prompts ‘the client’ to unfurl the story of his childhood in Belfast, in a kind of double interplay of Scheherazade.
Their exchange is fastened onto storytelling, as is this novel as a whole. Striding through a blacked-out Auckland, GoGo is transfixed by the generator that continues to power the central library, sustaining the human need to tell and receive stories in even the darkest moments. She trots through the streets ‘like person and shadow. I was the person’, and readers are the shadow, tailing her as she moves through the geography of inner Auckland. These scenes are pleasantly familiar for local readers, albeit cloaked in the strangeness of the Blackout.
Like the city, GoGo is literally without power: repressed sexually, emotionally and financially. The blackness of the dress she is entrusted to mend mirrors the Blackout, but is equally a talisman for her emerging sense of selfhood. Despite being a failed critic, an English drop-out, she empowers herself by imposing her own reading upon their interaction. First she overlays Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre onto the dynamic she holds with the client, before getting confused and studying Jean Rhys’s novelistic disclaimer, Wide Sargasso Sea, thereby encountering the complicated palimpsests of history in the process. Eventually she realises that despite the client’s ‘broody Mr Rochester look’, she is not Jane Eyre or Charlotte Brontë, but ‘blinking Jean Rhys. I was the nutty colonial.’
The client’s allure for her seems to be a combination of impulsive opportunism, the erotic flame of his touch, and her own crisis of identity. She often takes over the client’s narrative and tells it in her own words, claiming it for herself, and yet deconstructing it as a ‘sob story’ designed to emotionally manipulate her. Despite her ambivalence, her meetings with the client enable her to reassemble (her) identity through (his) storytelling. GoGo’s own national costume, she explains, is invisible: it does not exist, because she has no history. And yet her surname – Sligo – corresponds to the town in Ireland, and her nickname ‘GoGo’ relates, of course, to an outmoded style of dancing.
GoGo’s problem is that she is always imagining herself in other people’s skins. Part of her initial attraction to the love triangle is that ‘the wife’ wears a ‘power’ suit, which GoGo professes to have always wanted to wear. Likewise, she regularly fantasises about whoever planted the original garden in her villa, picturing a ‘banker’s wife’ who ‘must have gone crazy with her forget-me-nots and daisies, her dandelions and lavender, in the unaccustomed heat while her husband was down in the city’.
And so, for a time, does she ingratiate herself into the role of the client’s lover. She aligns their sexual encounters with migration, carving out ‘a new life on terra incognito’. Yet her tendency to randomly name body parts – ‘his torso, my sweat, his arms and legs, my arse’ – unconsciously mirrors her mechanical listing of garments earlier. Herein lies the crux of the novel: whereas humans are mere parts, the only thing that is full, whole and complete is, ironically, the national costume that has brought the lovers together.
At the same time that GoGo objectifies the people associated with her work, she endows the costume with both sentiments and sentience. Projecting her own responses onto the dress, it seems ‘like a thing alive, the way it jumped in my hands. Half alive, then dead again, in and out of consciousness.’ The dress is like ‘the body of a small child’, representing the union of the lovers, and embodying the unconceived children who would, theoretically, continue the lineage both can trace back to Ireland. Always possessive, GoGo eventually kidnaps the dress, in a clever parody of a custody dispute gone wrong between two parents.
The first-person narration can be provoking, with GoGo’s irregular backtracking, phonetic repetitions, and haste to anticipate reservations that I did not even know I had. Even so, the character is believable, her voice buoyed to the end by waves of genuinely funny, laugh-out-loud moments.
Perhaps the only other attractive character is Mabel, GoGo’s fashion designer colleague, with her amusing hipster clones and her over-the-top fashion show. This latter scene is a glorious send-up of the budding New Zealand fashion industry, filtered through GoGo’s cultural cringe: ‘These women weren’t models, they were just girls from Glen Innes, from Howick, dressed up. Therefore (I reasoned), you could never quite believe in the clothes they wore.’
The clothes Mabel offers up lack history and purpose: no longer destined to be treasured as ‘heirlooms’ or cultural transactions, but simply victim to the cycles of fashion trends. This is the late 1990s, an era where aprons do not serve a function but are merely expensive decorations to an outfit, and where disagreement over the correct shade of green at a sewing shop can lead to tantrums and tears. For GoGo, the disposability of expensive designer clothes is countered by the homemade Irish dress through which she can ventriloquise a sense of identity.
Overall, GoGo’s desire to place herself somewhere in a genealogy of some kind – not as a ‘Bert figure’, like her obsolescent father-in-law, but to be active, creative and part of something bigger than herself – speaks for the experience of many third- and fourth-generation New Zealanders. Although the fate of the national costume is hinted at in the title, the (double) twist at the end is both shocking and poignant. You’ll certainly never again pass Grafton Cemetery without looking nervously over your shoulder. The lesson? Never trust an Irish banker.
AZURE RISSETTO is currently a PhD candidate in the English Department at the University of Auckland.