Talk of Treasure by Jane Carswell.
Wellington, Eastbourne: Submarine, an imprint of Mākaro Press (2016).
Reviewed by Jessie Neilson.
Jane Carswell’s Talk of Treasure is a quiet and pondering reflection on what it is to be a ‘writer’, how one is to insert their own voice into a story, and what, in fact, constitutes an acceptable finished product. Is it enough, she wonders, to complete a manuscript for oneself, or should a novel or other work in its entirety be considered successful only if published and read by others?
Carswell started her working life in the local publishing industry, which set her curiosity running. More recently she spent time teaching English in China, exploring new worlds, and it’s on her return that she attempts to reconcile aspects of her life in China with her present lifestyle in New Zealand. Hosting Chinese homestay students proves a notable venture and a source of recurring inspiration throughout this book. She gains knowledge about herself through these one-on-one interactions with students this time on her home turf, while being exposed to their expectations and outlooks. Her first memoir, Under the Huang Jiao Tree, had focused on her time of learning about herself and her place in the world in China.
As Carswell embarks on this second work she contemplates her place in the world of writing. She is already a published author, so does this in itself make her a writer? Perhaps she is simply a gate-crasher at their party, ‘clad in a manuscript that smells foul’. She constantly struggles with self-doubt which her oft-carefully-worded rejection letters from publishing companies do nothing to appease. However, she recognises that she is stubborn, refusing to give in to their requests for an identifiable narrative thread and a less meandering first person narrator. An assessor’s report refers to her ‘unshapely verbal conglomerate’. For some readers, this ‘querying’ focus in place of a plot will be disconcerting, as this work really is for those who are writers themselves or interested in the process of writing in itself.
Also of vital importance to Carswell is the place of meditation and spirituality in her life. The meaning gained from her writing, and the purpose of her meditation and retreats, are intertwined. Silence, and that implied in the gaps between words, has a notable part to play. From these influences comes an endeavour to write honestly and authentically, as her ‘best self’. She describes writing towards a goal as a journey that chronicles our progress ‘as we dance, creep and stumble our way through outer and inner worlds’, while at the base of everything that matters is the ‘engine room of a life’.
At times it would seem that a tighter narrative form would be valid, if, indeed, Carswell’s aim were to unfold a straightforward story. Some action might have a place in holding interest more firmly. However, Carswell never pretends an interest in unfurling a novel or even a chronologically-based memoir. Talk of Treasure is to be approached as its own unassuming exploration of self and place in writing. Its beguiling cover, encasing the diary-like form, with many short entries, add to the gentle tread of this book.
Jessie Neilson studied English at Otago and also holds qualifications in the areas of second language teaching and library and information studies. She 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.
Published takahē 90, August 2017.