Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 9, 2018

The New Ships, by Kate Duignan #BookReview

I am indebted to Elizabeth Heritage on the BooksellersNZ blog for her enticing review of this fine novel, and also to Sue’s most recent review at Whispering Gums for triggering the realisation that this is a Gen X novelist casting an observant eye on the Baby Boomer generation.

The New Ships is set just after 9/11 and concerns a lawyer called Peter Collie, a self-made man whose father was a blue-collar worker.  He typifies the demographic of Baby Boomers newly able to access tertiary education and join a professional class to which they do not quite belong.  The novel is told entirely from his point of view, and when it opens, Peter is grieving the recent death of his wife Moira who was an artist.  He is devastated because he loved her dearly, but also because the adulthood of their son Aaron is testing Peter’s identity as a man and as a father.  The themes of this novel make me realise that we need a new word analogous to ‘bildungsroman’ or ‘coming-of-age’, to represent the formative years of people in middle age when they belatedly experience psychological and moral growth, or to put it more unkindly, finally grow up…

Aaron is Moira’s child but not Peter’s, because he chose to marry the pregnant Moira and bring up the child as his own.  But prior to this in his feckless days as a backpacker in Amsterdam his French girlfriend Geneviève had a baby girl who died – during Peter’s brief absence – aged just six weeks.  So Peter, while he has been a very good father to Aaron, has not replicated his all important genes.  And now, we learn, it seems he has some longstanding doubts about whether that baby did actually die – but he has never investigated to be sure.  This man as father to a child not his own, who was rewarded, praised, applauded, more than most fathers, is ambivalent about whether he might have another child who is biologically ‘his’, on the other side of the world.

Aaron has an ambiguous identity too.  Guignan filters his responses to the cards he has been dealt, through Peter’s reflections and flashbacks.  While Moira has always been open about her son’s origins in a one-night-stand, Aaron in a moment of anger, refers to his ‘real’ father and would like to know more about him, but this isn’t possible.  (Or #TeenstySpoiler so everyone thinks.  Moira has secrets of her own). All Aaron and Peter know about him is that his name is Mark and that he was a person of colour because Aaron is dark-skinned.  Moira says he was conceived in Australia so Peter thinks the father might have been Indigenous, but in his teenage years Aaron joins a rugby team of Māori and Pacific Islanders and self-identifies as Raratongan. Peter doesn’t actually realise Aaron’s angst about any of this until Aaron takes off overseas and is lackadaisical about keeping in touch.  Peter, very anxious about his son, finds out only through other unexpected sources, where Aaron is, and what he’s been doing.

This scenario exposes the ‘free love’ of the Baby Boomers as a phenomenon that can have painful consequences for the next generation. Peter has been blithe about the boy’s mixed heritage and his acceptance of his parents’ arrangements, but it isn’t as easy as that for Aaron.  On a trip to Venice when he was fifteen, he became separated from his parents and the Italian police who found him thought he was Moroccan and didn’t believe he was a tourist with New Zealand parents.  He doesn’t tell his parents that he was handcuffed until some years later.  Belatedly, Peter realises that Aaron’s ambiguous ethnicity makes him vulnerable to post 9/11 suspicions about terrorism.  The novel also leaves open the question of whether this young man will be accepted as ‘marriage material’ in ‘respectable’ Wellington society: he has a grandmother who loves him because he’s her grandson but she is emblematic of the generation before the Boomers.  She is insular, snobbish and painfully racist.

Man Writing a Letter by Gabriël Metsu (Wikipedia)

Peter is, as Elizabeth says in her review, a flawed character.  Great art works play a role in his reflections, but Guigan uses Moira’s nude portrait of him as a striking symbol of her authorial intent.   He didn’t sit for the portrait, and he doesn’t discover the painting (along with many other of Moira’s enigmatic actions) until after his wife has died.  What’s more, he doesn’t understand what it means until it’s exhibited in a gallery.  As you read this excerpt, think of those sober Golden Age Dutch portraits you’ve seen, the ones of respectable middle class people in status-conscious clothes, surrounded by numerous props that symbolise their heritage, their successful business activities, their place in society and the inheritance they will leave to their children:

When [the curator] came to stand in front of Moira’s painting, I turned away and made an intense examination of a Goldie painting of a young Māori girl.

We might imagine that the artist here has chosen to peel off the man everything that defines him, she said.  Her voice was melodious, authoritative.  A person of this age must have a history, must have a role.  And yet here the figure is not father, not husband, not lover, not worker.  He has no context around him, only that bare white chair.  I see it as a thought experiment, she said.  I see it as the artist putting to the question to us.  What would happen to this man if he were stripped of all his titles?  (p.346-7)

Well, the author strips him bare.  Peter seems like a nice man, but he’s got well-buried history in his past and an impulsive streak in his present that will raise many an eyebrow.  It’s a really well-crafted book that held my attention to the very end and definitely made me want to read more of this author!

Author: Kate Duignan
Title: The New Ships
Publisher: Victoria University Press, 2018
ISBN: 9781776561889
Source: Personal library, purchased from Fishpond $29.95 AUD

Available from Fishpond: The New Ships


Responses

  1. Hmm, now what could we call this middle-aged behaviour.

    Well, I’ve just looked up bildungsroman, and here is the definition “A novel whose principal subject is the moral, psychological, and intellectual development of a usually youthful main character”. “Usually youthful”! I didn’t know that. I reckon therefore that bildungsroman would work. Though we’d have to qualify it really wouldn’t we – a “middle-aged bildungsroman”.

    Oh, and thanks for the link.

    • Sue, you would love this novel. It is so rich and multi-layered I’ve barely scratched the surface of the themes there are to talk about.

      • Wah, don’t tempt me! I’m still reading books sent to me in April! It sounds good though, and I need to read more New Zealand writers.

        • Your book group would have a grand time with this one…

  2. Oh my, sounds like a beauty!

  3. I agree with Karenlee, sounds a great book…added to Librarything!

  4. As someone who didn’t grow up until middle age I’ve always made do with ‘mid life crisis ‘. It’s difficult to accept but I suppose more and more books are going to treat us as the previous generation.

    • I don’t think that’s the same. I know perfectly normal mature men who behaved very oddly in middle age, so one would see it most likely as an aberration. That’s different to never really growing up in the first place!

  5. LOOKS GOOD, CHINA


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