Strip by Sue Wootton.
Wellington: Mākaro Press (2016).
RRP: $40. Pb, 330pp. ISBN 9780994123756.
Reviewed by Jessie Neilson.
Sue Wootton is a Dunedin-based poet and former Burns Fellow who is currently studying towards a PhD with a focus on discovering illness in literature. She also co-edits the blog ‘Corpus’, which seeks common ground between medical topics and writing. Strip is her first novel and it works with these preoccupations.
Wellingtonians Isobel and Harvey are a fortyish couple who have all but given up on the likelihood of becoming parents. Told without subtlety that she has a ‘hostile womb’ Isobel retreats into despondency, seeing babies and children wherever she looks. Both are professionals: Isobel is in the field of museum studies and Harvey a doctor, but they seek changes of direction upon this seemingly final news. However, life looks up when a baby girl comes up for adoption.
Fleur brings with her endless joys, but also the inevitable anxieties that a baby entails. Sometimes all the new parents can manage is a ‘cranked-up, cranked-out smile that was more of a grimace’. They struggle with feeling like faux-parents: unworthy or inadequate, or simply too old. Fleur’s presence raises unexpected jealousies that unsettle family dynamics. Additionally, there are the complex issues surrounding the birth mother and what her physical and spiritual presence in their lives should be, not to mention the lack of knowledge around Fleur’s genetics and inherited traits.
As the child grows into early teenhood these issues are compounded by extremely stressful, unexpected factors. Acts of self-preservation and the obliteration of threat lead to consequences unforeseen. Suddenly their senses of self that they had taken for granted enter difficult ethical ground, and lead to a covering of tracks. How Isobel and Harvey will work together – their bond and support systems – comes into question. Trust erodes as each deals differently with their private knowledge of the situations and their emotional capacities to cope.
Wootton’s craft as a poet is evident throughout her first novel as she focuses on depicting changing emotional states and relationships which encompass daily worry. When Harvey takes up as a comic strip illustrator, in happier, early days, his reputation was one ‘zinging through the ether and around the globe: such sweet copy, such irresistible filler’. Wootton describes Isobel’s world, as it becomes, ‘in the dark [ … ] entirely soundscape: the whooshes and catches of his breath and hers, a slight wind shaking the tree outside the bedroom window …’. When Harvey emerges from the hospital setting he finds he would need to ‘wade wide-legged along the street, locked behind his visor, the world coming at him as a muffled distant roar’.
Strip begins innocently enough with just hints of the emotional territory which will later be increasingly mined. As the characters face situations that drain them we feel the poignancy in their three-dimensionality and bare humanness, where they experience something ‘physiological’ in Fleur’s irritability; where perhaps their success in parenting is how they ‘flailed and failed’. The reader cannot help becoming immersed in their denial, sorrow and confusion. What impresses as most affecting is the straightforwardness of the storytelling. Without sentimentality or moral judgement the situations and personalities are laid out. Life, it seems, is never going to be as clear as black and white, and it is how each of us responds to that which makes up the delicate material of life.
Jessie Neilson studied English at Otago and also holds qualifications in the areas of second language teaching and library and information studies. She has taught international students here and abroad. Jessie is a regular reviewer for the Otago Daily Times and works in the University of Otago Central Library. She has broad interests in matters literary.