The New Ships by Kate Duignan
Wellington: VUP (2018)
RRP: $30. Pb, 362pp
Reviewed by Janet Charman
From a smorgasbord of wonderfully observed detail there arises, in Kate Duignan’s second novel, a salient existential question. Its slipperiness, like the oysters I default to when spoilt for choice at the buffet, amply sufficient as the keynote of The New Ships.
More than halfway into the tale, an old newspaper clipping about a notable boating tragedy catches the eye of Peter the protagonist. Four men have unexpectedly perished at sea, causing him to observe with elaborate complacency towards his own glaring sins of omission, that in:
‘The gradual reconstruction of events, [there is] the realisation that, from a single mistake, a mistake anyone could make (did they check the weather before setting out?), from a series of mistakes, none in themselves serious or unforgivable, the very worst consequences can unfold’.
Kate Duignan, with repeated time shifts and myriad scene changes, challenges the reader to consider from her own ‘gradual reconstruction of events’, whether they agree that when it comes to her protagonist’s mistakes, ‘none of them [were] serious or unforgivable’.
Peter, a wealthy lawyer, is newly widowed, so initially he earns some leeway for behavior that has a more than glancing similarity, as events unfold, with Patricia Highsmith’s psychopathic anti-hero, Tom Ripley. But the spine-chilling excitement of Ripley’s ironically reasonable ruthlessness lies in his complete immunity to the feelings of those he exploits and dispatches. However in Duignan’s novel, the unsavoury escapades of Peter the protagonist, each come with a moment of introspection in which he itemizes how unfavorably anybody who derives less benefit from his actions than he does himself, might view his behavior. But as these insights don’t impel him to change his ways this empty empathy registers as spineless.
As he and his ethnically marginalized and spendthrift adult stepson jointly grapple with their grief at losing a wife and mother, Peter begins to view his boy with growing hostility. But at the level of metanarrative his constant appraisal of his stepson’s origins as ‘other’, speaks to Peter’s own blithe assumption of his European birthright in Aotearoa New Zealand as entirely uncontestable.
His lifelong failure to resolve the tragic crisis brought about by his youthful refusal to take responsibility for his sexual actions, also sees Peter paralysed by the thought of the possible existence of a long-lost child of his own, cut off from him somewhere on the other side of the world. This traumatically severed kinship connection speaks obliquely to Māori prerogatives of whakapapa and the cultural legitimacy lent by indigeneity. And also to the price which must be paid if these are ignored. In that sense the repellent racism of Peter’s mother-in-law is an emblematic reminder to the reader of the arrogant delusions of self-entitled Europeans and the staying power of racist colonial repression.
Equally provocative here is the ambivalent textual attention paid to imperial history and post-colonial ethics. Duignan ultimately projects the private familial tension between the novel’s alienated stepson and his narcissistic stepfather, onto a seemingly irresolvable sexual, religious and political “sibling” rivalry played out between an extended family of refugees from the partitioning of India and Pakistan. In the face of what is portrayed as their far larger, exponentially more intractable, since ‘international’ conflict, Peter, in what is a symbolic gesture redolent of imperial amnesia, is positioned as an ostensibly ‘neutral’ referee between two hopelessly feuding ‘foreign factions. In the face of the internecine rivalries of these ‘others’ he and his stepson implied as needing, if they want to get anywhere in life, to pull together as never before.
Janet Charman’s poetry collection, ‘仁 Surrender’, (OUP, 2017), chronicles her writing residencies in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Her monograph ‘Smoking: The Homoerotic Subtext of Man Alone, A Matrixial Reading’, Genrebooks, Dunedin, (2018), is free to download at: http://www.genrebooks.co.nz/