ReadingRoom

Book of the Week: Falling in love, and falling sick

Nicky Pellegrino and Annaleese Jochems review new fiction by New Zealand authors Eileen Merriman and Chloe Lane

Nicky Pellegrino on The Silence of Snow: I cried actual page-blurring tears reading the latest novel by Auckland writer Eileen Merriman.

Jodi Waterstone comes from a family of medics. At 24, she's just started work as a junior doctor in Nelson, where she's struggling to cope with the long hours, exhaustion and pressure, and questioning whether she's made the right career choice. At the same time Jodi has the dawning realisation that agreeing to marry her rather controlling boyfriend Fraser might not have been her best move either.

Enter anaesthetist Rory MacBride, with his soft Scottish burr and crooked smile, quoting TS Eliot. Rory understands Jodi’s life in a way her fiancé never can, and before too long she is falling for him.

What she doesn’t know about the charming Dr MacBride is that he is a damaged man. Blaming himself for a routine surgical procedure gone wrong, he's coping with the stress of traumatic flashbacks by quietly self-medicating with an array of drugs at his disposal. Will Rory self-destruct? Can Jodi’s love save him? Will their relationship and careers survive? This is the heart of the story.

Merriman is well equipped to set a convincing medical scene - she works as a consultant haematologist - and, like Jodi, spent time as a junior doctor in Nelson. So the reader is plunged into a realistic world of constantly beeping pagers and gruelling night shifts, of suspected meningitis cases and self-harmers, and a brutal daily routine of life and death decisions.

 
 

It's a drama that tackles some serious themes – such as the way young doctors are routinely overstretched and overtired, and the complexities behind medical misadventures – but these are stitched into the story seamlessly and never allowed to hamper the pace or distract from the emotion. There's lots of dark but also enough light, like the wry references to TV hospital drama Grey’s Anatomy and doses of the darkish humour that real-life hospital staff tend to use to keep themselves sane.

The prose is fluid and flowing; words aren’t wasted here, but that's not to say the writing isn’t evocative. This is how Jodi likens the experience of falling in love with Rory to a bungee jump: “There’s this moment after you first leap, when everything is really silent and pure, when you feel as if you’re not really falling at all. As if you’re suspended in glass. Then everything rushes towards you, the whole world spilling into your eyes, and it’s scary and wonderful all at once.”

Merriman is an instinctive storyteller with an innate sense of timing. There's a misconception that if a novel is easy to read then it must have been easy to write. If anything the opposite is true. You can cover a lot of flaws with layers of fussy, frilly prose, but paring a story to the essentials – an engaging plot, authentic characters, a world that comes alive – takes real craft. Merriman achieves that with The Silence of Snow.

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Annaleese Jochems on The Swimmers: Chloe Lane is a master of comic writing. Many scenes in her debut novel The Swimmers are pushed to within a breath of their absurd limit - and nothing in its serious presentation or grave subject matter suggests how funny it is.

After a year with Motor Neuron Disease, Erin’s mum Helen has decided she’d rather die than allow it to progress any further. She’s set the date for Tuesday. Erin learns this information while standing on the side of the road, after watching her Auntie save a goat from being stuck in a tree.

While Erin’s Auntie Wynn tries to justify her mother’s decision the goat injures itself again, this time on the corrugated iron roof of its hutch. Erin enjoys a fantasy of shooting it. The Swimmers is filled with similar scenes of escalating tension, many of them brilliant to rival Miranda July or Jennifer Belle. Chloe Lane is good fun. Her novel reminded me of Chick Lit’s often nuanced attention to ordinary woman’s troubles of sex and family. Like all the best comic writing it’s marked by an enormous capacity to hold contradictory feelings.

Sometimes life feels like a test everyone’s failing, or a novel with a plot we’re not worthy of. When Erin asks her immobilised mother why she doesn’t have a Netflix subscription her auntie interrupts: "Too expensive." The sisters love each other with a laughing ferocity that’s incomprehensible to Erin, as well as to the sisters themselves. Somehow, their love can’t justify an outlay of $12 a month. Budgeting might be the central existential problem of family life.

The only thing Erin, her mum, and her auntie have in common is swimming. Auntie Wynn is repeatedly compared to dolphin, which feels cartoonishly truthful. I was struck more than once by the thought that slow deaths don’t happen underwater: They’re a land problem, not something dolphins are equipped for. Lane’s characters have no idea what to do. They’re profoundly uncomfortable – obviously - with Helen’s impending death, but also with their respective roles in it. There’s no etiquette or ritual they find comfort or guidance in.

The danger – or even inevitability? – of a more straight-faced telling of this story is that it’d operate as fantasy. I’m tested by the worst possible scenario. I prove myself strong, but emotionally complex. Every decision I make is the right one. In Lane’s tragicomedy everyone remains exactly the same person they were before the story started. No revelatory emotional equipment falls from heaven and into their hands. They’re each allowed a measure of personal growth, but no heroism. Lane’s soft irony might be a comfort, but at the same time it falls over the story as a sense of claustrophobic realism. She writes, "The realisation that the last conversation I would have with her was about our inferior teeth genes descended on me like a quick moving fog." Such moments are funny in the way opening a door and finding a wall would be funny.

Erin makes an analogy between the loss of her mother’s bowel function, and Rothko’s paintings. It hadn’t occurred to me that his work might be about anything as simple as loss, or terror – or that his sublime might speak directly to the stuff of ordinary people’s lives. Erin tells us of Helen’s tube feeder: "I hated that loaned wheelie contraption, its metal frame a dulled stainless steel that suggested too many other slow deaths. When I locked on to it now, and my gaze crept along the tube leading from the suspended plastic pouch of opaque formula—a pale fleshy colour that reminded me of no food—and directly into my mother’s stomach, I felt as if something cold and metallic was surging through my bone marrow."

On the day of Helen’s Final Frolic – as she puts it in a laboriously typed iPad message to her daughter – she, Erin, her sister and niece go for a winter swim. They feel and look ridiculous in their wetsuits as the wind hurls around them, and the communal mood fluctuates between self-consciousness and reckless abandon. There’s quiet tension as to who should wear the second wetsuit ‘helmet.’ For Erin the trip out is unpleasant, and vaguely demeaning, but her mother and auntie are invigorated. Erin tells us, "It was the first time I was able to picture my mother and auntie Wynn as the Moore Sisters, ruling the pool, ruling the beach."

But the small irony never costs our sense of Erin, her mother, and their family’s completeness – instead, it doubles it, and gives us an understanding of their dimensionality. The Swimmers tells the story of a struggle with love, and for it.      

The Silence of Snow by Eileen Merriman (Penguin Random House, $36) and The Swimmers by Chloe Lane (Victoria University Press, $30) are available in bookstores nationwide.

* ReadingRoom reviews appear with the support of Creative New Zealand *

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