The Last Time We Spoke by Fiona Sussman.
London, UK: Allison & Busby (2016).
Reviewed by Karen Zelas.
Auckland writer Fiona Sussman is rapidly making herself known as an author who tackles the hard subjects. Her first novel, Shifting Colours (Another Woman’s Daughter, in the USA), addressed apartheid in her country of origin, South Africa, and racism in the UK. The Last Time We Spoke, her second novel, addresses the Māori/Pākehā divide, through the topical issues of home-invasion and disaffected youth. Sussman immersed herself in the world she was writing about: visiting prisons, speaking with inmates, victims, Police and others. And it shows. As does her medical background. Yet none of this intrudes.
This is a compelling novel which, through Sussman’s skill in establishing character, grabs the reader immediately and rushes forward into action, the horror and terror depicted honestly and graphically, yet with restraint. A home-invasion is the catalyst that sparks the story; Carla’s cherished son is killed and her husband severely injured. The story focusses on the catastrophic impact of these events, both upon Carla and upon sixteen-year-old Ben, the youngest of the attackers, and Carla’s efforts to reclaim power and control.
Sussman’s prose is spare, yet flowing and easy, using effective but unobtrusive imagery. She takes the reader inside the heads of Carla and Ben, often an uncomfortable place to be. There could be nothing more sad than the description of the minutiae with which Carla, at one stage, fills and organises each solitary and pointless day to ensure there is not an empty moment in which to remember, think, or feel. But despite the devastating losses (experienced by both characters) and overwhelming grief, this is a story of hope and rising-above, depicted in realistic, non-mawkish terms as their futures interweave.
The story is told primarily from two perspectives, Carla’s and Ben’s, the relevant name heading each chapter. Sussman has developed such a distinctive, convincing and consistent voice for each of these characters that the naming of the chapters would be superfluous were it not for four small chapters from the points of view of three other characters. Three of these chapters are involved in drawing the story to a neat close, perhaps unnecessarily.
Interspersed throughout are fifteen short segments, headed “Beyond”, comprising the voice of an unidentified tipuna speaking to Ben about Māoritanga and giving a brief colonial history. These interrupt the forward movement of the plot and seem intended to meet the needs of international readers. They do not create the ethereal, emotional, magical connection as do similar sections in Tina Makareti’s Where the The Rēkohu Bone Sings.
The Last Time We Spoke shows the freshness and daring of Alan Duff’s Once Were Warriors, offering insight into a specific, marginalised and violent group within our society. It also shares with Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk about Kevin an illustration of the emotional consequences of random violence.
It will be difficult for Sussman to top The Last Time We Spoke when seeking a subject for her next novel.
Karen Zelas is Fiction Editor of takahē. Her first novel, Past Perfect (2010), was published by Wily Publications. Her verse biography play, Geography of Loss, was staged in 2014 and her third collection of poetry will be published by Mākaro Press in August 2016.
First published takahe 87