Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 14, 2018

Bloom, by Kelly Ana Morey #BookReview

My discovery of this absorbing novel is due to serendipity.  I’d been exploring Teara, the Encyclopaedia of New Zealand online when (via Creative and Intellectual Life/Literature/Maori fiction) I came across the entry for Kelly Ana Morey and mention of her first, award-winning novel Bloom (2003) which won the Best First Book Prize at the Montana New Zealand Book Awards in 2004.  Intrigued, I hunted around until I found a second-hand copy.  Now that I’ve read it, I’m keen to find copies of her other novels: Grace is Gone (2004), On an island, with consequences dire (2007) and Quinine (2010).

Trained as an art historian, Morey worked as the Royal New Zealand Navy’s oral historian (from which came the book Service from the sea (2008) about the Navy Museum’s collection) – and perhaps it’s the visual artist’s way of looking at the world that has influenced her writing. On almost every page there are images rendered in exquisite and often sensual detail:

I looked in the direction of his pointed finger and caught the flare of the sun on a corrugated-iron roof.  Alistair produced an apple from his pocket and began to polish it on the leg of his tan cotton shorts.  ‘Would you like half?’ he asked, holding up the gleaming apple for my inspection.

‘Yes please.’

Using a penknife hanging from a waxy string around his neck, Alistair cut the apple in half, giving me the piece that had the reddest skin.  Juice oozed from the cut surface, dripping onto my hands.  I licked the sugary liquid from my fingers.  It tasted of the sun.  (p. 133)

The blurb teases readers who might be looking for a conventional crime novel:

Constant Spry, newly liberated of her waitressing job, is summoned home by her grandmother, the irrepressible Mrs Algebra Spry. Accompanied by Nanny Smack, the ghost who crochets tomorrow’s sky, Connie journeys south to Goshen – a crossroads caught between the mountain and the sea. And, slowly but surely, she gathers the myriad threads that are the lives and loves of the four murderous and conveniently forgetful Women Spry.

Instead, the ‘murders’ – all four of them – are gradually revealed to be more like misadventures as the novel progresses lightheartedly through a century and a half.   Connie returns home with a sense of curiosity about her elusive father (as well she might), and pursues her personal history through the memories, anecdotes and old photos of the women in her life.  The murkiness of the male line contrasts with the common preoccupation with family genealogy: this is not a family that can construct a neat family tree.  Morey’s women are triumphantly not respectable.

Granny Algebra Spry is not actually Mrs Spry at all.  She spent some time with a photographer who turned out to be a pornographer, and when he lost her and his house and business to a Chinese gambler called Han, Algebra took his name.  But like her daughter Rose, Algebra is forgetful and vague, leading conversations off in a tangent.  She prefers to forget inconvenient or tedious matters.  The name of Rose’s father is not important…

Connie’s curiosity meets its match with her mother Rose too.  Rose’s amnesia has a cause that’s not just chemically induced.  (Smoking and taking drugs is normalised in Bloom).  Connie can’t even find a photo of her father.  (As an aside, the process of photography in the pre-digital era is lovingly described.  You can just tell that Morey loves old photos and the methods by which they were made.)  Connie is accompanied by the occasional appearance of a cheerful ghost called Nanny Smack, as real a character as any other in this idiosyncratic novel.  She is a HauHau witch, who crochets tomorrow’s sky in her kete (a Maori woven bag) and whose role is to maintain a sense of perspective about the affairs of the living.  Indeed, as the trail moves along, the missing men in Connie’s life seem less and less important than the strong, resilient women who have survived what life has dished out to them.

This is not a novel where Maori disadvantage is central to the narrative.  Although this is not a middle-class family, and Connie’s sister Hebe becomes suddenly ‘clumsy’ after her ill-advised marriage, (reminding me uncomfortably of Alan Duff’s Once Were Warriors,) this family is not dysfunctional.  Connie and her sister do well at school and get to university.  They are confident, smart women.

Bloom is funny, wise, and thoughtful about families and how they come to be formed.  I liked this novel very much.

Kelly Ana Morey is of Ngāti Kurī, Te Rarawa, Te Aupōuri, and Pākehā descent and grew up in Papua New Guinea.

Author: Kelly Ana Morey
Title: Bloom
Publisher: Penguin New Zealand, 2003
ISBN: 9780143018926
Source: personal library, purchased second-hand from Fishpond.


Responses

  1. beautiful and great review Lisa
    i have never read any book from New Zealand and yesterday my cousin who is Somali Australian was complaining about the lack of visibility and readers for Australian literature outside Australia but thanks to your lovely blog am discovering many good books from your region

    • Thank you – and how nice you have a cousin here! Perhaps you might visit one day and we could catch up!

  2. I’ve just searched this author in my library catalogue and they have a copy of Daylight Second which is about Phar Lap – I might try that one.

    • Ooh, that sounds interesting. I haven’t done a local search yet, I should do that too.

      • It’s the only book of hers that my library has. I really liked the quotes you picked so I shall start there

        • Well the good thing is that if it isn’t anywhere else, I can get it on interlibrary loan from yours:)

          • 😁

  3. […] See Lisa’s review at ANZ LitLovers […]

  4. Thanks Lisa for your review of the novel Bloom. It seems like an intriguing novel. For Indigenous Literature Week this year, I decided to read selected short stories from Patricia Grace’s Collected Stories. Prior to reading the stories, I read the article, “Maori Literature in English: An Introduction” by Norman Simms a few months ago. I became familiarized with some Maori customs, cultural and postcolonial terminology, and common themes explored in this body of literature. What authors Kelly Ana Morey and Patricia Grace have in common is keen attention to nuanced details of Maori culture and concerns with matriarchal lineage, female subjectivity through voice and lived experiences, and vigilance of sustaining community and family. It was important for me as an engaged reader to review scholarship on Maori literature. I highly recommend readers like myself who have little or no knowledge of indigenous literature to read a critical article or text for context.

    • Thanks for this Sonia, and hey, I’m pleased to see that I’ve picked up on those themes in my various reviews. I haven’t read enough of Morey yet to say which are strongest in her writing, but I would say that vigilance in sustaining family and community is very strong in Grace’s Baby No-Eyes and in Cousins. She has a sophisticated way of showing the tensions that make those bonds fragile – teenage girls just wanting a city life away from the marae, for example – and that’s something I can see in Morey’s work too – the leaving and the coming back, wanting both excitement and possibility as well as home and belonging.


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