The Sound of Breaking Glass by Kirsten Warner (Mākaro Press, 2018), 290 pp., $35
In a Spinoff article (21 November 2018), writer Kirsten Warner, referencing the Holocaust, has commented, ‘It was a surprise to me that there were other people who saw the barbed wire behind the eyelids. My father hadn’t been in a camp, but I still had the horrors.’ She goes on to say: ‘I wanted to write a story from the next generation’s point of view, to stay there and not be diverted into the big, overshadowing parental one.’
In her debut novel Warner explores this concept through Christel, the daughter of Holocaust survivor Conrad and his wife Stella – although the parental story, looming large, still shapes and informs much of the work.
From the opening paragraph it is clear that Christel is in a bad place. She falls, hurting her foot, and this injury plays on through the narrative like a motif of her unresolved inner pain, invisible yet ever-present, a sharp reminder that she is neglecting to look after herself.
Christel is working in the ruthless world of New Zealand television in the 90s, while being psychologically ambushed by both her father’s history and her own unresolved teenage trauma. She is regularly visited by an imaginary character she calls ‘Big C’ – not cancer, as most of us know it, but Christel’s alter ego, her self-critical ‘other’, perhaps even the expression of her guilt: for being a bad mother, for not saving her father from his suffering, for being hopeless at making television.
Big C appears in various guises, at one point as a bluefin tuna, at others as judge, Jack of Hearts, pirate and goddess. His/her voice is often menacing, critical: ‘You always took the wrong turning, you had to be different. I warned you.’
Big C also criticises Christel’s writing ambitions, and she retaliates: ‘If only I could make it up, but for me it’s always this city, this place. As it was then.’ Christel is forced to remember – both her own past in this city, and her father’s past in Germany. Memory is unavoidable, relentless, easily triggered.
At other times Big C seems to be acting out Christel’s own hidden impulses, such as when he/she hurls a fire extinguisher through the window of Karate Man’s house.
Karate Man is one figure from Christel’s past that haunts her, both physically and emotionally. There are also Artist and Teacher. Such epithets are given to quasi-archetypal characters and many others, often in the form of caricature. Her boss is known only as Fat Controller, a double put-down considering the nickname is from the Thomas the Tank Engine series. Christel’s boss, ‘boxed into a leather jacket, menacing his keyboard’, is mostly a repulsive bully.
Although it is obvious that something is very amiss in Christel’s world, it takes a while to find out what lies behind her angst. ‘Things seem at a huge distance like I’m trapped behind walls of glass.’ She has a lot going on in her head, and a picture grows of a woman experiencing a form of dissociation. At one point her husband Ted gently draws her back to the present while she realises, ‘Part of me is still up above us looking down.’
Such human moments.
So the narrative flicks between ‘that summer’, her father’s history and the present: Conrad at home; Christel and friend Nina attending Vietnam War marches; young Christel being stalked by a red car; and her present life, where she is trying to take care of the kids and make a documentary about recycling.
Meet Milk Bottle Man. As in a slanty kind of fairytale, Christel creates a man out of plastic milk bottles for a Women Against Surplus Plastic (WASP) demonstration. They peg this figure to the side of Mount Hobson. Then, just like a fictional character getting away from an author, the thing gets out of hand, escaping from the recycling doco and ending up on the roof of Karate Man’s house to make a much more personal statement.
How much is Christel controlling this bottle figure? It seems to have a life of its own. Even she doesn’t know who or what is controlling it. WASP is pissed off, thinking Christel is acting alone.
Until the novel hits its stride the style feels fragmented, a jumble of disparate elements. Once various stories begin to be revealed, however, things start to fall into place: Karate Man’s hold over Christel; Teacher’s cultural misappropriation; Artist’s more subtle influence on Christel. The concern lies in whether the reader will stay with the narrative until the author starts to reveal certain secrets.
Away from the cartoonish world of TV, Warner excels when detailing family life, in particular the depictions of the death of Christel’s mother, and Conrad railing against authority and the past. The crux of the novel lies in Conrad’s Holocaust experiences and how these continue to impact on his little family in New Zealand. It is Christel’s inheritance. And she is struggling to deal with it. There is the double bind of needing to remember – the Jewish lament – and the burden of remembering.
As a girl Christel heard about her father’s past often enough to be able to live it herself. In fact, some of the most interesting writing is when Christel’s present narrative merges stickily with that of Conrad:
It wasn’t me who was to blame, who smashed the stick down to get them back into line – don’t look at me. I wasn’t there. I had no choice. We were sorting shoes, left and right, male or female, boot or slipper, child or adult, down at heel or patent polished, false heel, sole and tongue, a hill of shoes, a heap of overcoats, a mound of spectacles, a chasm of false teeth, a hillock of hair.
Next minute, Big C is telling her to leave ‘this stuff’ alone. Even her subconscious is saying that, as Second Generation, Christel must extricate herself from ‘the weight of the past’. The parental point of view remains a substantial shadow in her life.
At other times the device feels a bit try-hard, such as when Christel is fleeing from Karate Man and the narrative segues into Nazi Germany with ‘dirty girl, dirty Jew, Judenjunge …’ Yet once the connections are revealed, these sequences start to make more sense.
Interestingly, Conrad has told Christel one version of his history, but she discovers other versions, other details, particularly after she is anonymously sent photographs of her father at a motel. As she realises, ‘It is hard to keep it my story and not my father’s.’ And perhaps this is Christel’s main problem: Conrad’s story is so powerful, so overwhelming, that it keeps impinging on her own. It is understandable that she hides behind various personae; after all, it’s traumatic history. How to deal with it – as a child, as an adult?
‘For Conrad the war was never over.’ He tells versions of his own stories. ‘Auschwitz was the dark underworld in all Conrad’s stories.’ Yet when young Christel asks a benign question, she has seemingly gone too far. Conrad’s answer echoes Big C:
‘Daddy, when did you come to New Zealand?’
‘That’s enough,’ he slammed shut the conversation. ‘You can’t leave this stuff alone.’
Some lovely moments bring this history to life on a personal scale: ‘I imagined my father like Tintin, crouched over his bicycle, pedalling like mad towards a border post and two small sentry boxes.’
Meanwhile, throughout the novel, the city of Auckland in the 90s is lovingly portrayed, rather like another character:
Some days the city painted itself in Kodachrome slabs of hard colour and sometimes in grainy black, white and grey; an isthmus that collected rain and brooded, where the forecast was always cloudy and mild with periods of rain, further outlook fine.
Ultimately, it’s a novel about the complex issues around survival. How do you cope with ‘ordinary’ life after having lived through the experience of the Holocaust; and how, as Second Generation, do you cope with the residual guilt and anger of that experience? To give Conrad the last word: ‘He couldn’t bear what he remembered.’
TINA SHAW is an author of fiction for adults, including The Black Madonna, written while she held the CNZ Berlin Writers’ Residency, and The Children’s Pond, shortlisted for the 2015 Ngaio Marsh Awards. She also writes for children and young adults. Her YA title About Griffen’s Heart was a Storylines Notable Book in 2010. Her latest YA novel, Ursa, is published by Walker Books.