Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 10, 2019

All This by Chance, by Vincent O’Sullivan

All This by Chance was the last for me to read of the four titles shortlisted for the 2019 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards.  Like the other titles (see links to my reviews gathered in one place here) it explores what it means to tell the truth:

“They stood out for their ability to explore personal memory and collective mediation of the truth in new and provocative ways that have a lasting impact on the reader,” says the Fiction category convenor of judges Sally Blundell. (Auckland Literary Festival website, viewed 10/4/19)

O’Sullivan, who among other distinctions was Poet Laureate in NZ from 2013-2015, is of Irish heritage, but the characters in All This by Chance have a heritage that they themselves are unsure about.  The story is told in parts, from the unshared perspective and chronology of different generations, but all in third person narrative which effectively distances the characters from each other.

The story begins in postwar Britain, where a shy young pharmacist called Stephen escapes from Auckland, a place he sometimes hated, to a place he knew nothing of.  There in 1947, in London, under the benign paternalism of David Golson, he begins both his career and a puzzled engagement with a post-Holocaust world.  He meets and marries Eva, a woman without a past because she knows nothing at all about her family.  As a baby she had been adopted out from Berlin, and then sent to safety with a Quaker family in England when anti-Semitism was on the rise.  So it is a shock when the past that Eva has been shielded from emerges into their lives: an elderly aunt of whom she knew nothing has survived the Holocaust and been brought to London to be with the sole remnant of her family.

Ruth goes with them when the couple set sail for Auckland.  She is, they were warned, badly damaged by her experience, but the gulf between them is not just because of the impenetrable barrier of unshared languages.  A specialist tells them one day that they should be grateful that she remembers so little of the dreadful years in the camp.  Yet Ruth seemed to know Miss McGovern when they recognised each other on the ship, and Miss McGovern becomes a regular if not really welcome visitor in Auckland.  The genesis of their curious friendship remains unexplained for a long time, until in 1976 a Holocaust researcher panics Miss McGovern into telling Stephen their shared story.  She and her sister Irma were imprisoned because they would not renounce their beliefs as Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Ruth had suffered brutal and enduring punishment because she tried to help Irma in a moment of crisis.  Miss McGovern now is terrified that the researcher will trigger cruel memories which have mercifully been lost.

On the other side of the world in 1968, Stephen’s daughter Lisa lives an idyllic lifestyle in Greece.  While her brother David struggles to resurrect a Jewish identity that his parents never had, she has left all that behind.  She has a genial lover, Fergus, and she is biding her time before starting her career as a doctor.  But real life intervenes and Lisa abandons him, choosing instead to work on an African mission where her life moves towards a trajectory no one could have foreseen.  In 2001 her niece Esther will track down Fergus in the hope that he can shed light on what happened.  Now a bitter and lonely old man, he is only too pleased to have someone forced to listen to him.  And Esther, like the other characters, has to wrestle with the ghosts of the past and whether it is better to seek out the truth or to let things be.

All This by Chance is a perceptive novel, exploring the lives of people who are never sure that they belong.  Although melancholy in tone, it is not a pessimistic novel, but rather one that invites a possibility that belonging, in a world where migration is becoming the norm, might not matter quite as much as we think it does.  Tucked into an episode between Fergus and a woman called Angela, there is this:

He amuses Angela with the stories he tells her. It is weeks since he has taken her out like this.  And when she asks him, is he happy though, is he content the way things are between them, he asks, Who can ever answer that, on a particular day, in a world like ours?

‘It isn’t so difficult,’ Angela said.  But writers like Fergus, she supposes, people who think more deeply about things, you cannot expect them to see things the way others of us do.  She stretches out her hand to put it across his.

‘Take it a day at a time,’ he says.  He sees the crinkling at the corner of her eyes.  ‘We can’t do more than that.’ (p.233)

See also the perceptive review at Alys on the Blog.

Author: Vincent O’Sullivan
Title: All This by Chance
Publisher: Victoria University Press, 2018, 335 pages
ISBN: 9781776561797
Source: Bayside Library Service, Sandringham Branch

Available from Fishpond (free delivery from NZ to Australia) All This by Chance



  1. […] All This by Chance by Vincent O’Sullivan (Victoria University Press), see my review […]


  2. I know writers want to explore all sorts of stuff, but you know … historical, Holocaust, women protagonists. I don’t think this is my thing.


    • It’s not really historical, or even really the Holocaust. It’s difficult to explain without giving away spoilers, but it relates to the way people in danger can be rescued from a hostile environment by humane people, or not. It’s about the risks of the processes by which people escape today, and the consequences of that. And for both Eva and Ruth who escape/survive, it’s about the ongoing impact of that experience and how it shapes a life, even when if like Eva, it seems as if a wholly new identity meant she lived most of her life with no knowledge of it.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. […] All This by Chance by Vincent O’Sullivan (Victoria University Press), see my review […]


  4. […] All This By Chance by Vincent O’Sullivan, see my review […]


  5. […] All This by Chance, by Vincent O’Sullivan […]


  6. […] All This by Chance, by Vincent O’Sullivan […]


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