Breakwater by Kate Duignan
Wellington: VUPClassic (2018; orig publication 2001)
Reviewed by Rebecca Styles
I remember reading Kate Duignan’s debut novel Breakwater when it was released in 2001. The only things I remembered about the book were avocado on toast – I’d never heard of it before – and the sense of feeling windswept and up high. These lacklustre memories are a reflection of me at the time, and not of Duignan’s writing.
I had just moved to Wellington after doing Owen Marshall’s short fiction course at Aoraki Polytechnic in Timaru (where I‘m from). I was 21. I had a room on Oriental Parade, and I worked at a computer place. The only snippet from that job I can remember is having a breakfast meeting – the first and last one I’ve ever had. It seemed very Wellington, like the queues for coffee in the morning, and the hordes of people waiting for buses outside Unity bookshop in the evening. People wore expensive clothes, more so than now. I felt out of step. I fell face-first onto Cuba Street. People were nice and helped me up. But it wasn’t quite right, me being in Wellington.
Ella, the main character in Breakwater, also feels displaced. She’s moved down to Wellington from Gisborne, and is in her first year of University, studying marine science. She falls pregnant to a man she doesn’t want to be with, and leaves him to have the child herself. She ends up living with her friend Tessa, her mum Louise, and brother Jacob, on the south coast of Wellington. Louise owns the Breakwater café on the coast, and has brought up her two children solo.
Although Ella has found somewhere to live, there’s a sense of homelessness when she discovers her Dad has started a new relationship with Margaret. Ella remembers Margaret as a grumpy woman who worked in the local dairy. Margaret has moved into the family home, so there are a few changes when Ella travels to Gisborne for the weekend to mark the anniversary of her mother’s death. Ella’s mother is like a absent presence throughout the novel. Ella was young when it happened, so the lack of reflection shows her not having had a chance to really know her mother before she died. However, the fact that Ella is about to become a mother intensifies the loss. Ella also seems disconnected from her culture. Her Aunts sing songs that she doesn’t know the words of. And while there are glimpses of connection, Ella says to Andy, the baby’s dad, that she thought of the name Tamaiti, these moments are few. Ella is disconnected from home, culture and her family.
When Ella gives birth, Tessa and Louise help through the delivery. It pulls them together, and everyone is willing to become a part of Ella’s new family. Louise especially, being a single parent, can relate to Ella’s situation and is happy to help, but a car accident rips this burgeoning family apart.
Tessa is in the car with her friend Chris, who’s driving, when the car crashes. Chris walks away physically unscathed, but Tessa has worn the impact. It’s touch and go as to whether she’ll live. The resulting strain means that Louise and Ella pull apart. When Ella is trying to be unobtrusive in order to be helpful, Louise sees it as evasion. And the practical things Ella does around the house go unnoticed, or Louise thinks someone else did them. A stark contrast in circumstances opens-up between the women – Ella has the joy of new life, and Louise is faced with losing her daughter.
After the accident, Jacob’s behaviour becomes increasingly erratic – he appears to have depression. While his mother notices his erratic behaviour, she doesn’t mention depression which seems a bit remiss, especially considering she trained as a nurse and was looking out for signs of depression in Ella after the birth. But, as the novel progresses we realise Jacob’s behaviour mirrors, in some respects, those of his father’s, and perhaps Louise just doesn’t want to see it. But Jacob’s friend Chris does, and although he wears the brunt of Jacob’s manic moods, he also knows how to read them, and comfort Jacob. The depiction of their friendship, and the strain between them after the accident, keeps the reader on tender hooks, and is ultimately very moving.
It’s a quiet novel that pulls you into its emotional intensity, riveted, hoping that Tessa will be well, and that everyone can pull together. It’s an assured novel that paints fully formed characters and their struggles. The portrayal of Chris and his guilt after the accident, and his attempt to find a job after university are as contemporary and relevant now as they were when the book was published. Reading it, you just want the people to be happy, to get along with their lives, and enjoy their ordinary successes. It’s a novel about a forming your own family, it’s about being together, rather than going it alone.
When I read Breakwater eighteen years ago, I felt that same lack of place as Ella. Unlike her, I did go home for a bit. Rallied, got a job, went to university, and eventually came back to Wellington. Reading the novel again has brought back those memories of feeling lost, like Duignan’s characters felt lost. It’s easy to forget how unsure you are in your late teens and early twenties as you work out what to do with your life. Duignan’s assured writing gave me a deeper understanding of her characters than I gathered the first time. Perhaps the first time around I was too young and distracted to take it all in. Perhaps those struggles are easier to see from middle aged, rather than when they’re directly in your face.
Rebecca Styles (PhD in creative writing at Massey University) has written a novel based on an ancestor’s experience of mental illness at Seacliff Asylum. She’s had short stories published in New Zealand journals and anthologies, and teaches short story writing at Wellington High School Community Education Centre.