The Invisible Mile by David Coventry.
Wellington: VUP (2015).
Reviewed by Olivia Macassey.
The Invisible Mile, the first novel by Wellington writer David Coventry, is a complex, thoughtful addition to New Zealand literature. An offering from VUP, this novel sits comfortably in the “literary fiction” genre: Coventry is a graduate of Victoria University’s International Institute of Modern Letters, and an excerpt of The Invisible Mile has previously appeared in the literary journal Sport (issue 43, 2015). Notably, it is also a good seller to date, and will be released later this year for the UK and Commonwealth market by Picador.
The narrative arc of The Invisible Mile covers the travails of an unnamed first-person narrator, who competes as part of the 1928 Tour de France. While based on a real historical event – the Australian based Ravat-Wonder team were the first Anglophone team to compete in this cycle race – the main character here is fictional, and rides alongside his historical counterparts. Despite participating in a team, the book’s narrator is a quintessential Man Alone, stoic and determined, often isolated in his own world of physical anguish and mental alienation. The setting is a gruelling, almost month-long race on fixed-wheel bicycles, involving stages and team time trials. The action consists of: “Concentration, stamina, cold, trust, rain, belief, wind, endurance, pain, skin, heat, urine, blood, scabbing, stench, faith, filth, food, water, wine, blister, drug.”
When not cycling, the protagonist has a series of encounters (real and imagined) with his fellow travellers, including the mysterious cycle-race groupie Celia, who is not what she seems, his own teammates, and the Algerian rider Louvière, with whom he develops a strange connection.
Alternating with this narrative is a series of episodic, slightly cryptic memories of the troubled protagonist’s family and youth in rural Taranaki. As the story unfolds, we learn that his brother was a pilot in the recent Great War, and that he may be implicated in the death of his sister Marya. Memory becomes sometimes more present than the race itself: “My Marya, see her sleepwalking in the hours after midnight. Wandering the halls of the house and making detours into rooms she had no right to enter, even taking a book from my hands as I sat up reading and placing it on the shelf in its proper place.”
At the heart of this novel is the theme of the individual’s encounter with the opacity and trauma of history, present yet inaccessible. Personal history is inescapably bound up with the wider events which shape the modern world. As the race moves through the French countryside and towards the terrain of past battles in the North-East, the narrator increasingly faces his brother’s involvement in the war and its repercussions for himself and his siblings. “And, I ask you again,” says the narrator, “is that history? That resonance of the past with the now, is that what we call history? If so, then there is no circularity, just a plainsong sung in the ages.”
Coventry eschews cliché, and tends towards slightly odd or inverted turns of phrase – “he knows things similar about me” or “I knew him in ways intimate” – imbuing even mundane events with a sense of something strange and unfamiliar being translated into words with difficulty. This makes it at times an uneasy, although rewarding, read. “Simplicity”, his protagonist believes, “is just our desire for composition, for things to be true.” Instead, here we see the world anew. Coventry’s writing interweaves description and metaphor with an almost hallucinatory feel:
“He was inelegant when he walked, a vulture stumbling about a corpse, but on his bike he flowed, a river long and smooth. I dug my thighs into the pedals and forced my lungs to the edge of breathing. My heart and veins fought. I thought of broken things, the things that had cracked through time and landed their sharp pieces on my life.”
As the race proceeds, and the narrator avails himself of drugs such as cocaine, speed, and opium to keep going, the novel takes on a surreal, driven feel that for me is reminiscent of a J.G. Ballard or a Cormac McCarthy, although very different in style. The reader also begins to realise that our narrator is classically unreliable. It is “[t]he memory of another garbled forth. The attempt to make memory in the shape of the other to become this narrator.”
In The Invisible Mile, Coventry succeeds in creating a complex, nuanced novel which fundamentally questions our relationship with the histories which shape us, and the ways in which we tell the stories of who we are. At the same time, it is in many ways a classic sporting yarn about grit and determination in the face of a physical and mental test of endurance. A writer in his mid-forties, Coventry seems to have arrived fully-formed in our literary landscape with this fascinating debut.
Olivia Macassey’s poetry has appeared in various publications including Poetry NZ, Landfall, and Brief. She also writes on cinema and history, and holds a PhD in Film, Television, and Media Studies from the University of Auckland.