The Salted Air by Thom Conroy (Random House NZ Vintage, 2016), 302 pp,. $38
Where should a first-person novel begin? With the narrator’s conception or birth? Or further down the track:
What I think of as my origin, my actual first moment, is borrowed from a picture that was kept among hundreds in a box in the days when photographs were things you would keep in a box, like the Star Wars trading cards my dad has told me he collected when he was a boy.
Thom Conroy’s second novel, The Salted Air, begins with a photograph of Djuna’s American parents, taken before she was born. They are posing in a garden, without ‘spades or pitchforks’ but, she seems to be suggesting, ‘American Gothic’ all the same. Djuna is convinced that she is there – in utero, presumably.
Lucy and Eugene Claremont are significant characters in this story, as important to Djuna as her late lover, Harvey, who took his own life eighteen months before. They may even be more so, as they are alive and undergoing change. As restless as they have ever been, they loom large in Djuna’s life and in her sense of self, in a way that makes her seem less than grown-up for all her twenty-eight years. An only child, she is part of a trinity of love and responsibility. While Lucy and Eugene are described and remembered, and speak to us from the page, they remain essentially mysterious, unfathomable. Djuna longs for the intimacy they once shared, but it proves elusive:
What I want is the past back, and the nicked table of our kitchen and the sickly old tui outside who croaked every morning, and I want no death, never.
The family members have always kept journals and The Salted Air is Djuna’s written account of the events of her life after Harvey:
For years now, my parents and I have kept journals, ringed notebooks where we write anything we please. When we all lived under one roof, we kept our journals in the kitchen beside the cookbooks. They were not private. Quite the opposite: we wrote them for each other. More than that, we wrote them to each other though we never put it that way.
This is a nice conceit that provides a structure to hang the novel on. Consisting of multiple fragments, paragraph-length, page-length and longer, the story moves from present to past events, describing in telling detail conversations, encounters and memories, and reflecting on what they mean. There is immediacy and musing, sometimes hesitancy and contradiction. We go back and forth, and the story advances in fits and starts. This structure works a kind of magic – it constantly tantalises and surprises the reader – but also has its risks and limitations. An amusing snippet, promising relevance and meaning, sometimes serves merely as a distracting interruption and an irritation.
The ‘chapter’ titles, while often whimsical or cryptic – ‘An Eclipsed Epiphany’, ‘Some Wierd Shit Coming Out of the Sea’, ‘The Incident at the Undisclosed Location’ – are a useful distancing mechanism in a first-person narration, providing an ironic commentary.
Harvey’s suicide has derailed Djuna’s life, leaving her to deal with grief, abandonment, anger and guilt. Her story is, however, not without humour, as she tries to rediscover the uncomplicated joy of her childhood. Djuna is a compelling creation, credible and likeable, pledging honesty and embracing it courageously. Even her waywardness is entirely plausible.
Recovery from a loved one’s suicide is a complex and harrowing process that demands time and forgiveness. Djuna sifts through memories of her love affair with Harvey – its moments of easy intimacy, poignant beside the numbing reality of his death. Alongside this, she is reaching back to her childhood to scrutinise her beloved parents’ marriage as it unravels.
Harvey’s brother, Bruce, is grieving too, and in spite of having a wife and a child, it is to Djuna that he turns. When she lets him enter Harvey’s childhood bedroom where she is sleeping after the funeral, she becomes complicit in a troubling affair. She wants it to end but seems incapable of terminating it. Their physical intimacies attract and repel her.
‘What happens when grief draws you to your partner’s married brother?’ This question is posed on the book’s back cover. Is this what the novel is about? Yes and no. This love/hate attraction is a symptom of the loss through which Djuna is finding a path, but comes with a slew of complications and contradictions. Bruce, it turns out, is flawed in an unexpected and spectacular way.
A large part of The Salted Air describes the road trip Djuna takes with Bruce and Joanna’s eight-year-old daughter, Ella, to East Cape where her father Eugene is living in a Māori community. The bond between Djuna and Ella is loving and healing, Ella serving as a stand-in for the child-Djuna vis à vis Eugene. He is involved with a local woman, Reina, a relationship that Djuna has to try to understand in spite of her strong desire to re-unite her family. On the fringes but sometimes in the centre is Lyle, a friend of Djuna and Harvey. Keeping in touch with her by cellphone, he represents a ray of hope for her future.
When Bruce sets out to join them, things get complicated. The novel’s episodic structure, with its odd anecdotes and charming flashbacks, copes less well with the forward thrust of plot and impending resolution. This reader had no patience for a paragraph-length chapter about ‘When My Mother was a Girl’ in the midst of the action. Throw in huge issues around Māori–Pākehā relations and you have a potent mix and a lot, perhaps too much, going on. But this is how life is, Thom Conroy seems to be saying. Deal with it. He paints an insightful picture of a Pāhekā outside her comfort zone struggling to find her way in the Māori world.
Does The Salted Air meet expectations? Does Djuna emerge from her grieving time? The reader feels her anguish easing: ‘I am without gloom, and it is an unfamiliar but fiercely welcome absence.’ She has a future without Harvey. So, I was disappointed that the last word wasn’t given to her. It was her novel, after all.
Running parallel to Djuna and her search for ‘true love’, or at least a kindred spirit, are her parents, Eugene and Lucy, who seems destined to un-couple. Their relationship remains an enigma. We see them through the lens of Djuna’s nostalgia and her volatile emotional state. She can flip from love to hatred for her father. Lucy is largely absent, though she has been loving and supportive of her daughter in the past. We spend more time with Eugene and, while we witness him acting like a father to Ella, meaningful exchanges with Djuna are few and far between. When it comes to explaining what he wants for himself he proves to be inarticulate and evasive.
While a reconciliation with Lucy is possible it seems unlikely, as she has asked for a divorce, and this casts a shadow or at least a question mark over Djuna and her prospects for happiness. Is love such a fragile thing when decades of marriage do not guarantee its continuance?
Perhaps Conroy rejected a ‘too-tidy’ ending. This aside, there seems to be something lacking in Lucy and Eugene’s characterisation and something unresolved in their relationship which is hinted at but not fully explained. They are of course manifested via Djuna, a generally reliable narrator but one with the blind spots of her generation. We must all discover sooner or later that our parents have feet of clay. Other characters give their opinions about Eugene but it doesn’t add up to much. He’s a ‘dreamer’, ‘a naughty boy who’s run away’. His wife says: ‘that man has poisoned me with talking’.
Did Thom Conroy need to remind us on the final page that this story was a construct, that it should be written in Djuna’s notebook? I think not. I was persuaded by Djuna from the outset. Absorbed in her story and on her side, I wanted her to turn a corner and leave the heart-break behind. Djuna’s voice rings true and the novel presents a snapshot of New Zealand characters speaking with familiar cadences and recognisable authenticity. Writing comfortably and economically of our landscape and our national character, Conroy shines a fresh light on some memorable locations in our salty country. The Salted Air is a thoroughly engrossing and satisfying contemporary novel that deserves to be widely read.
CHRISTINE JOHNSTON is a Dunedin-based novelist, short-story writer and reviewer.