Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 1, 2020

Nothing to See, by Pip Adam

The trouble with reading an exceptional book like Philip Salom’s new novel The Fifth Season is that one can’t help but expect whatever comes next to be a disappointment.  But not so… Pip Adam’s new novel Nothing to See is exceptional too…

In a pleasing way, it takes a while to work out what’s going on.  There are three parts to the novel: 1994 when Peggy and Greta aged 24 are learning to be sober; 2006 when they have jobs; and 2018 when Margaret is working in a specialised field and struggling with both obsession and depression.  It sounds banal, but here’s the thing: Peggy and Greta used to be one person.  Before coming out of rehab and attending sobriety meetings three times a day for something to do so that they don’t drink, they came round from a catastrophic blackout to find themselves duplicated. Not cloned, more like twins with separate identities, but so perfectly identical in appearance and mannerisms that people recognise them for what they are, and despise them.  Because they are not alone, the same phenomenon has occurred to other young women who’ve drunk to sordid excess, including their flatmates Heidi and Dell.

Such terrible things happened to them when they were drunk, stealing from their friends, sleeping with men for money and getting gang raped — they don’t ever want to go back to that so they do everything together to support one another.  Unlike Heidi and Dell who are always at odds, Peggy and Greta are in harmony.  But that is their only advantage: everything is so hard for them, it’s enough to make you weep.  They have some kind of sickness benefit, but it’s not enough because the bureaucracy doesn’t  recognise them as two people.  They have only one birth certificate.  They can’t get a driver’s licence, or a passport, or get tertiary entrance or qualifications.  That kind of future is slammed shut, but for now the immediate priority is to survive.

It’s not hard to see that this is the plight afflicting all kinds of undocumented people in modern society.  (When I was moving my father from aged care in Qld to be near me in Melbourne, I had to do it through Centrelink even though he was a self-funded retiree.  He could not meet Centrelink’s identity requirements because he didn’t have a current document with a photo on it.  He hadn’t had a driver’s licence or a passport for decades. This meant that all his paperwork got jammed in the system and went nowhere, and they couldn’t answer questions about it because he didn’t have a Centrelink number to locate him in the system.  To say it was a nightmare is an understatement of how distressing this was.  How people with limited English, limited money for phone calls and limited access to a bricks-and-mortar Centrelink office get on, I can’t imagine.)

Peggy and Greta have to think very carefully about buying food — and they are so ignorant about cooking, they don’t even know the most basic things like how to store potatoes or that food can overcook if you delay taking it out of the oven for some reason.  They have a cookbook, Alison Holst’s Meals without Meat, and they use it to make a quiche for a picnic organised by their sobriety support group.  They are baffled by the crust, they don’t know what a flan tin is, and they don’t know if they have enough money to buy the ingredients. They decide to take the cookbook to the supermarket with them so that they don’t buy more than they need:

They all turned out their pockets and wallets.  Between them they had about eight dollars and there was seven in the jar for flat expenses, like toilet paper.  They convinced themselves it would be enough, but they had no idea.

‘If we get there and it’s not enough we’ll just get what we can — the things that’ll keep — and then get more tomorrow. ‘ No one wanted to ask how they would have more money tomorrow, because the quiche was the most exciting thing that had happened in ages.  (p.79)

Clothes are another problem.  They have incinerated their thermals. They only had one pair so they needed them to dry quickly and had put them too close to the heater.  (They’re clueless about how often clothes should be washed as well.)  It’s such a surprise when the novel later reveals just how smart these characters really are, subverting reader expectations and cautioning against confusing disadvantage with potential.

Because they would like to have a job one day, they volunteer at a charity shop under a paid supervisor called Dorrit.  They’re not trusted yet with the till, but they sort clothes, do the ironing and so on.  There they are tempted, but resist, stealing Docs left outside the change rooms, and they put up with rudeness from male students who weren’t said no to very often and probably not by shop girls.  But they take intense pleasure in helping out others as poor as themselves:

There were nice students.  Some of them were poor like Peggy and Greta, just looking for a waterproof coat or a new pair of shoes.  They’d repaired their Vans over and over with shoe-goo but that was all coming to an end so now they needed a new pair — a pair that was new to them.  Peggy and Greta would help them out.  Take them to their personal stash of canvas shoes.  It wasn’t really kosher but they would hide some shoes away from where the shoes normally were.  Put them on display way back at the end of the store where really they weren’t on display at all.  No one could see them, but when a nice person came in and was looking for canvas shoes they might say, ‘Oh, wait here,’ and head back to the end of the shop and grab the Converse All Star low-tops or the PRO-Keds and bring them to the customer and say, ‘Do these work?’ and the person might say, ‘Wow.  Yeah,’ and smile and it would make Peggy and Greta smile. (p.107.)

They hear about a service called Workbridge, and they decide to try it.  They are so naïve about work and how you get ahead and get the things that other people have, they think it will be an automatic process once they get started.  Yet they are painfully humble in their expectations too.  They want to be sober, to have a paid job, and have enough money for the right kind of clothes.  Expressed in calm, sparse prose, moments like this are quietly devastating: their delight that they can share a joke about buying a pillow ‘on-sale’ because now they have a flat and aren’t couch-surfing or sleeping in cars.  There’s another poignant moment when they see the gardens properly for the first time since reading children’s picture books.

Diane, their support worker, is a saint. They ring her at all times of the night when they are anxious and tempted to drink but she has endless patience and she says helpful things such as ‘these things happen, and then, if we don’t drink, we get a choice about what we do next.’ A recovering drinker herself, Diane wants more for them than they want for themselves:

That was how it worked really.  When they started helping other people, they would start to understand this love.  She said they would, and she was right.  It was a strange kind of care, like whispering into a gale-force wind.  Like picking up one piece of rubbish at a time.  But it was pure as well, it was special.  They’d only ever experienced it for each other before. (p.151)

There are so many layers in this book, and all I’ve shared here is the way the first part of the novel tugged at my heart strings.  Parts two and three dissect work insecurity, the rise of technology and self-inflicted surveillance through social media and virtual assistant gadgets like Alexa.  While society may act as if there’s ‘nothing to see’ especially when it doesn’t want to see the underclass, Pip Adams shows us that there is plenty to see, and that we should start looking.

This is a difficult book to review without spoilers, but Jan Shapiro at Read Close achieves it, and Charlotte Grimshaw at Newsroom doesn’t.

Author: Pip Adam
Title: Nothing to See
Publisher: Victoria University of Wellington Press, 2020
ISBN: 9781776563159
Source: Bayside Library Service

The book doesn’t seem to be available in Australia (except at my library!) but you can buy it from Fishpond freight free to Australia: Nothing to See


Responses

  1. I don’t know but I’m not sure if I would find their naivety endearing or irritating….only one way to find out I guess. Is it explained why they’re so clueless about basic stuff?

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    • Oh Jonathan, all around us C-19 is showing us how clueless people are about basic stuff even when they aren’t recovering alcoholics. All those people who rely on take away and eating out really, really don’t know how to cook. Or shop. Or store things. Or cook on a budget if they’ve lost their jobs. Companies that deliver ‘food packs’ aka ‘ready meals’ are making a fortune. It’s a shocking burden on the recycling system: the meal comes in a box, with insulation packaging, and the ingredients for the meal are supplied in measured out plastic packets, and there’s a step-by-step instruction card with pictures. I know this because our neighbour gave us one as a ‘free trial’ and The Spouse who is a gourmet cook didn’t have the heart to say no.
      And you know the most common query in our local neighbourhood Facebook group? Where’s the best #InsertCuisine shop that’s doing home delivery?
      Some of them seem to be a bit clueless about being with their own children too. It’s rather sad…

      Liked by 1 person

      • It’s amazing really isn’t it? I don’t know what it is about cooking that people find so complicated. Sure, there’s different levels but simple cooking to stay alive should surely be achievable by any adult. I think it’s the reliance upon the microwave that has done the damage.

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        • What’s nice to see in the book, and I’m sorry if this is a spoiler, is that the quiche turns out really well, which just shows, having a go is what it’s all about.

          Liked by 1 person

          • I was wondering about the quiche, thanks Lisa.

            I do think I’d like to read this. You’ve piqued my interest.

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  2. Another New Zealander I need to read. I haven’t read past the first two Paras in case I do manage to read this one!

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    • Start with The New Animals, Sue. It is the best book about modern life that I know of.

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  3. What a strange novel. Did it take a lot of concentration to keep the story clear in your mind?

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    • Parts 1 & 2, not so much, but Part 3, well, #NoSpoilers, it’s so different, even the prose, it’s more challenging.

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  4. […] words, or to depict a vicarious experience.  I felt like this when I was reading Pip Adam’s Nothing to See. Are we living in a simulation? Only a very clever author could make me contemplate even the […]

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  5. Sounds like a very complex read. Some authors are so clever with the concepts they come up with.

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    • I love this author, I think she’s one of the most intelligent observers of what’s going on in the world.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I haven’t read anything by her.

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        • NZ Lit doesn’t get a lot of attention here, and it’s not easy to get the books either. I’m lucky that there is a Kiwi librarian at Bayside who orders the books in, because they are expensive to buy, i.e. a bit more expensive than Australian books, even with free postage from Fishpond.

          Liked by 1 person

          • I actually bought about a dozen NZ novels on my last trip over there and only unearthed them during the packing up of my books. I had forgotten all about them! Once I’m on the other side and have all of my belongings (which will come to me in stages), I’ll be able to organise my books in a way that lets me see all that I have and I begin reading those ones too.

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            • I look forward to seeing what they are!
              What I found in NZ last year, was that it wasn’t even easy to find NZ books there. Most of the bookshops I went into featured international bestsellers, and staff didn’t even know the names of NZ authors. There was just one, which had a feature shelf of NZ books and I found a whole lot of treasures there. There was also a second-hand bookshop that made them easy to find as well.

              In their defence, however, I would say that there would be some bookshops here that are the same, that is, focussed on profitable international bestsellers and staffed by ignorant part timers who probably haven’t read a book since school. They don’t get my business…

              Liked by 1 person

              • I went into a two story bookshop in Auckland (this was in 2016) and there was an NZ section in there, so this particular store was serving the local market, although, their Australian book section was bigger! I remember finding that a little odd.

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                • It would be interesting to know how many titles get published in an average year…

                  Liked by 1 person

  6. Lisa, how good to see you reading science fiction. Oh yeah, right, this is just people being duplicated, just an odd premise, how could I call that SF? Because that’s what SF is, a different way of looking at ordinary situations. I’m glad you enjoyed it.

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    • In that case, I should have no trouble in persuading you to read it!

      Liked by 1 person


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