The Ice Shelf by Anne Kennedy
Wellington: VUP (2018)
RRP: $30. Pb, 317pp
Reviewed by Jessie Neilson
Janice Redmond is a Wellington-based woman in her thirties with a whole heap of grudges. A writer, she has previously published a debut work entitled Utter and Terrible Destruction. However, at 49 pages it falls one short of meeting the requisite for ‘real book’. Plus, as she reminds us frequently, it doesn’t have a spine. Still, she is hugely proud of it, referring to it as the ‘roman a clef/ autobiographical novella’. Janice had earlier studied Theory of Creative Writing under an esteemed professor (never mind that she was originally on the wait list and only accepted when another, worthier candidate fell through). Now she is all set to head off south with a few other chosen individuals, on an Arts New Zealand Antarctica Residency.
Janice is planning to put together some creative thoughts before she embarks to Antarctica. She tells us, in this first person documentation of the days and events leading up to the journey, that though writing before beginning the residency may seem to pre-empt it, in reality that is the best time to harness the creative muses. Much beckons her, and she knows she has plenty of material with which to work. In fact, her imagination is so completely running overtime that she is unable to stop the sentences pouring out of her like a non-renewable resource.
Recently out of a three-year relationship to the equally arty Miles, the ‘Ideas Man’, Janice claims not to be in the least bit bitter. It strikes her that the two individuals have fallen completely and utterly out of love. She professes to have adored putting together her writing in ‘makeshift liminal spaces’, lacking as it were a study of her own, or, after the relationship ended, even a home at all. Thus she dedicates what was to become The Ice Shelf to her ex-partner, and the book itself takes the form of one extended set of Acknowledgements to people who have ‘helped’ her in her life’s journey so far. Her so-called friends feature, as do her parents and their various, transitory partners.
Alongside Janice’s present-day reminiscences are these vast blocks dedicated to the story of her upbringing, her hippie parents, and the rather loose and irresponsible lifestyle they provided. Her parents Sorrell and Harry were ‘walking lexicons of colourful expressions’, and it may well be from her mother that she inherits both her continual imbibing and her diffident transience.
Janice takes on a deeply sarcastic tone, her facetiousness dripping off the pages. She decides on the technique of crots, discontinuous and abrupt narratives, in which best to tell her story and lay out her various diatribes. She tells of the days leading up to her trip, such as the final stand-off with Miles in the Sago Pudding Night; her temporary bunkings-down with various people, as well as a trip back into her childhood experiences which have helped form her and for which she is…eternally grateful. She parrots Miles’ deadpan. After all, she scribes snippily, conflict lies at the heart of any narrative, and she retains a strong affinity for the abject, with the ‘plight of the basest creature’ a strong element in her fiction.
The Ice Shelf is highly assured writing, extremely witty, and eminently readable. Janice, in her sarcasm, is droll to the extreme, and with her resentment, creative images stream out of her. She speaks of her ex, with his hair ‘fluffy and Einsteiny’, that in a moment of panic she breathes deeply and feels ‘the tension…flee like so many lemmings’. In another despondent moment she lies still, ‘my head on the gravel, abject, like a priest giving himself over to a life of paedophilia’.
Yet her main adventures, which form the buoyant heart of the book, are her quests around Wellington with her beloved fridge, as she tries in find a temporary home for it. Her descriptions of it speak of her attachment. Its main purpose seems to be to stock her orange juice for her innumerable glasses of vodka and orange. It is a lovely, green 1950s-style creation and ‘sleek like a horse’s buttocks’, with a ‘glossy flank’, the colour ‘as delicate as the underside of a leaf, the silver fittings like dew’. It is, after all, far superior to modern-day products with all the style of a dental implant.
Like her protagonist (or, self-sabotaging antagonist), similarly Wellington-educated Anne Kennedy has a passion for creative writing, which she teaches. As well as writing novels, Kennedy is a poet and editor. The Ice Shelf is wickedly fanciful and quick to flight. No matter how burdensome Janice’s fridge is, it will never wipe out her ambition, or her sense of humour. This is simply a wonderful read.
Jessie Neilson studied English at Otago and 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.