We feature each fortnight Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“THE FISH” by Lloyd Jones (Penguin Books, $NZ36) ; “GRAND – Becoming my mother’s daughter” by Noelle McCarthy (Penguin Books, $NZ35)
Question: When is a fish not a fish?
Answer: When it is a symbol of… something, but I know not what.
In Lloyd Jones’ latest novel The Fish, we are presented with a very real New Zealand family into which is inserted an element of fantasy, or perhaps an element of nightmare.
Like nearly all Jones’ novels, The Fish is told in the first person by (in this case) a narrator who is never given a name.
Let’s call him Narrator.
Late in the novel Narrator says he is in “late middle-age” and perhaps we could see all his memories as retrospective, but the tale begins in his childhood. When Narrator is nine years old, his grown-up sister Carla is hustled off to Sydney for reasons the little boy doesn’t understand. From childhood to young adulthood, Narrator writes to Carla, seems to idealise her, and believes she has a glamorous career as a model.
Quite different is his other sister who is also never given a name. She is aggressively fixated on sex. Other sister at one point taunts the little boy Narrator with her naked body, and little boy Narrator is also drawn into seeing a couple shagging in a car. He has a primitive understanding of what sex is about. Other sister leaves home and lives in a caravan in a caravan park. Other sister entertains many men in her caravan. She also, later in the novel, becomes a “boat girl” (prostitute working the wharves), takes drugs, blacks out and at various times is institutionalised. In Narrator’s mind there is clearly a dichotomy of idealised sister far away, and degraded (or degrading) sister nearby. But most important about other sister is that from one of her boyfriends (or clients?) she becomes pregnant and gives birth to Fish. She is thenceforth called only “Fish’s mother” by Narrator.
What is Fish? We are told that he has scales and gills and protuberant eyes and a blubbery mouth, can swim far and fast and leaves a horrible fishy smell wherever he goes. At least so we are told by Narrator. But as Fish grows up, we are also told that he can ride a bicycle, dance (if ineptly), do gymnastics, sort-of read and write, can sit transfixed by television like any other boy, play chess brilliantly and later is adept at running a scrap yard.
So is Fish fish or…um… flesh?
The whole concept of Fish troubles me. I can accept the transformation of Kafka’s Gregor Samsa into an insect because he so fully becomes an insect (see my take on Metamorphosis elsewhere on this blog). But Fish is never quite one thing or the other. Narrator’s flawed-but-forbearing parents see Fish as somewhat strange but treat him as a human boy and adolescent. Other people in the novel react in the same way. So what is Lloyd Jones attempting to achieve by creating this very ambiguous character?
I thought I had sorted out this problem in the earlier parts of the novel. As I interpreted it, the presentation of Fish really represents older siblings (or in this case a young uncle Narrator) and the way they often react to babies or younger siblings. After all, babies are smelly especially when their nappies are changed, they make a lot of noise, they might seem strange to children as they feed at a mother’s breast, they disrupt an older child’s accepted dynamic of family life and – perhaps worst of all – they take up a lot of the attention that the older child might have expected to be his. They are, to the child, alien, as if they were another species. If seen in these terms, then very, very unreliable Narrator is the envious child who has an extreme form of sibling rivalry (even if he is an uncle) to the point of referring to Fish as “it” and refusing to give Fish’s mother a name. Given that the story is set in the 1950s and 1960s, Narrator’s attitude could also have been influenced by the whispering of his parents about the fact that (oh, the shame!) Fish was born out of wedlock.
My theory seemed a very good one and of itself made a coherent story. But it simply can’t hold for the rest of the novel where, right up to the time when Narrator is a university student, Fish remains Fish or “it” and Fish’s mother remains Fish’s mother. Only very late in the day does Narrator accept Fish’s given name Colin.
So what is Fish and what is the point of Fish? In fact, does the author himself know?
The Fish is laced with stories related to the sea, to coasts and to mythological sea creatures. Narrator’s family live near the sea and often walk on the sand dunes. Narrator is given a copy of Moby Dick when he is a child. Later Narrator reads Robinson Crusoe to Fish. Fish’s mother runs away and Fish does a lot of swimming in his quests to find her. In the 1960s, there is a bizarre scene where Narrator’s parents visit leader-of-the-opposition Norman Kirk seeking police help in finding their missing daughter. There is a single death by drowning in the family, and to cap it all there is a long narrative of the 1968 sinking of the Wahine and many deaths by drowning. Through Fish, are we being asked to consider the nature of sea creatures and thus to consider the limitations of us human beings? I don’t know. Does Lloyd Jones?
Some of Jones’ familiar preoccupations are here. As in his autobiographical History of Silence, there are the strained relationships within a family – and I note that Narrator, as a child, loves bouncing a ball off a wall, just as young Jones apparently did. Narrator is also a youngest child, as Jones was. As in his Hand-me-down World, there are the problems with communication, like Narrator’s letters to his sister Carla and her letters back, and like the difficulties in communicating with Fish. Communication can also be deceptive, for as he matures Narrator discovers that his sister Carla is not the paragon he thought she was, that she might be living by “professional boyfriending” (i.e. prostitution) and that much she has written to him is false. And of course there are references to the power of story-telling and literacy and reading – the core concepts of Jones’ Mister Pip. How autobiographical are the following statements by Narrator? : “I was nine when I wrote my first letters. And sixteen when I stopped for good. But I didn’t stop writing. I don’t think I could have if I wanted to. It would have been like and order to stop breathing….”. And “It is here that I have come to make a start on writing a story. I am not sure what it is about. Is it about a freak or about concealment or shame?” (p.119) Self-referencing though it is, the last sentence here almost forces us to choose the latter option. “Concealment and shame” was what fuelled History of Silence.
Crowded with ideas and images though it is, I found The Fish to be a muddled work where the author seemed not to have found the particular target he wanted to hit. Allegory? Satire? Fantasy? Social comment? They’re all over the place.
Footnote: As a rule, I consider only the book itself that I am reviewing, and pay no attention to what other reviewers are saying. However, I was struck by the review of The Fish that Paula Morris wrote for Newsroom (28 February 2022). On the whole, she appeared not to approve of the novel. She was very astute in pointing out the novel’s many anachronisms for a story set in the 1950s and 1960s and she spent some time noting all the mythological sea-creatures references Jones deployed (more than I had noticed) as well as suggesting more relevant mythologies that Jones could have referenced. She also suggested that there was a misogynistic streak in the novel, given that all the women characters are presented negatively (including patient Mum who seems to lose her mind). She might have a point there.
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I’m not unique in noting that confessional and very personal memoirs by women are a current trend in New Zealand publishing. In the last two years alone, I have reviewed on this blog Caroline Barron’s Ripiro Beach (about medical trauma), Charlotte Grimshaw’s The Mirror Book (about family trauma) and Rosetta Allan’s Crazy Love (thinly disguised as a novel, but an autobiographical account of the author’s wilder youth and her most challenging dilemma as an adult.)
There are now many others of similar genre.
Best known in New Zealand as a radio broadcaster, Noelle McCarthy takes a rather different approach in Grand – Becoming my mother’s daughter. True, there is a running battle between daughter Noelle and mother Caroline (or Carol), who is generally called Mammy. But this is as much love-hate as anger. It comes to a sort of reconciliation and the author’s admission of how much she herself is like her mother. This is not a memoir that beats up parents.
Grand is structured as a series of Noelle’s childhood, adolescent and early-adult memories fired by the news that Mammy is dying of cancer but refuses radiation therapy or chemo. Noelle hops on a plane in New Zealand and rushes back to Cork in Ireland, her original home, so that she can connect with Mammy while she can. And the memories flow as we hop between “present” and past.
What’s soon clear is that Mammy had more trauma in her life that her daughter did. Mammy had two children out of wedlock – one possibly the result of rape - in an age when such birth was shameful (in many countries, not just in Ireland). One child died shortly after birth and the other was adopted out. This was before Mammy married a steady man and had four more children, the eldest being Noelle. Of Mammy, Noelle comments “Day by day, she is a mother of three, then four, children, married and decent. But there is nothing she would hold her tongue about when drinking” (p.31) And obviously one thing that Mammy often laments in her cups is the loss of her first two children.
The McCarthy family did not live in dire poverty. Father was a plumber usually in work and making respectable earnings, somewhere in the upper working-class or lower middle-class bracket. Things were sometimes strained. Even so, Noelle was able to get into a high-school that mainly took in the daughters of the wealthy, and she sometimes felt barbs of snobbery. She was invited into her classmates’ prize homes, but was encouraged by Mammy never to invite girls back to her own modest home. It would be too shaming. Despite this, Noelle flourished in the school which taught a solid syllabus and she excelled in public-speaking competitions. Later she made it into university, got a Bachelor degree, but then lost interest in study and never completed the thesis that would have earned her an M.A.
As for her rebelliousness in adolescence, it was a run of minor or foolish misdemeanours. One or two episodes of shoplifting. Getting drunk with her schoolmates. Getting so blotto at one party that she threw up. And of course first sex.
But the main issue is the ongoing struggle between strong-willed, devoutly Catholic mother and strong-willed daughter. Born in the 1970s, Noelle McCarthy was not of an older Ireland where clergy were dominant. There’s no clerical scandal in this memoir and Noelle respects her mother’s religion, and of course is part of it, even if she gradually moves away from it. What divides them is alcohol and her mother’s over-use of it. When her husband is at work and not available for baby-sitting, Mammy regularly drags her children along to pubs, drinks heavily, and often makes a fool of herself. At home her drinking leads her to shout angry rants or lachrymose wailing over her lost children. On one occasion Noelle has a physical fight with Mammy to prevent her going to a school event when she thinks Mammy’s public drunkenness would shame her. The teenaged daughter often pours mother’s booze down the sink and in one case smashes a bottle. Rows ensue.
There are other things daughter sees as provocation. Mammy has the habit of buying her inappropriate presents. She also has the habit of scouring charity shops for things she doesn’t need, in effect filling the house with junk.
It isn’t as if Mammy is totally unhelpful. Mammy had training as a nurse. When, at 13, Noelle begins to menstruate, Mammy gives her appropriate advice on the use of tampons instead of the old sanitary pads. When, after casual sex, young Noelle fears she has been impregnated, Mammy gives her advice of contraception.
After walking away from university studies Noelle meets a New Zealander who encourages her to emigrate. She leaps at the opportunity and doesn’t see Ireland again for another 20 years. Within three years of landing in New Zealand, after waitressing and working for student radio, she snags a good position in broadcasting, hosting an afternoon show. [I remember enjoying on air her cheerful and forthright Irish voice.] But she also parties, parties, parties in Auckland, stays out at night drinking, wakes up most mornings hungover and becomes a serial drunk. Her drinking gets reported in the gossip columns. She knows she’s losing it when her laptop goes kaput because of all the red wine she’s spilt over the keyboard and she gets nervous twitches while broadcasting. She loses her job as a broadcaster.
Irony of ironies, she realizes she’s become just like the mother whose boozing embarrassed her. Finally admitting she herself is an alcoholic, she dries out, but it takes six months before she feels healthy again. She says “People think that when you stop drinking , things get better. They don’t. They get worse to begin with. Of course they do. I am bare, flayed, missing a layer.” (p.147) She signs on to Alcoholics Anonymous and follows its 12-step programme for a decade.
And there’s another way she feels more like her mother. She has gone through various lovers. (She’s of a generation where, for some, serial cohabitation is the norm.) But now, when she plans to go on a date, she reflects “I’m admitting I want this: a partner, a home, a family eventually. I used to look down on people who dared to work towards this stuff. I laughed at everyone who was unironic about all the things that adult life requires: showing up for someone else, being faithful, paying taxes….” (p.162) In straightening out, she meets and marries a nice guy called John and they have a baby girl when she is 37. She now has the responsibilities of a mother. Just like her mother.
The bland synopsis I have given you is only a raw outline of Grand – Becoming my mother’s daughter. The book is more complex and nuanced than I might have suggested. Noelle McCarthy’s siblings (a sister and two brothers) are given minor roles. Her father gets some display and it is clear there was some trauma in the lives of her father’s parents, including a suicide. Aunties and uncles and old family friends buzz in and out of the narrative in their garrulous Irish way. But McCarthy is very focused on the mother-daughter dynamic. It takes more than realising she is her mother’s daughter for Noelle to be reconciled with Mammy. Even when she returns to Ireland as Mammy is dying, sparks still fly between them. Only when Mammy dies do tears fall and Noelle realizes what she has lost.
Grand is lively, vivid and exuberant in its prose. Its language and precise recording of detail catch the smells and sights of Cork and bring to life family gatherings and barneys and clannishness. We know what sort of food they eat, what sort of sweets the kids are given, what state the house is in, what the family’s codes and inherited catch phrases are. Noelle McCarthy gives the specifics of time and place and behaviour. She writes fluently. She is never short of words. I want to avoid ethnic stereotypes, but this is close to the confident Irish speaking known as blarney. There is a refreshing honesty to it. A grand read.