The Salted Air by Thom Conroy.
Auckland: Random House NZ (2016)
Reviewed by Jessie Neilson
Thom Conroy is a senior lecturer in creative writing at Massey University. He has published an historical novel, The Naturalist, and short fiction. The Salted Air, his second novel, is set in the North Island.
Djuna Claremont is in her late twenties and living in Palmerston North when her depressive partner Harvey commits suicide. He was an individual with whom she could peacefully share silences. Naturally introverted, deeply thoughtful and alive to the sensitivities of nuance running through interactions with others, Djuna now focuses even more inwardly on her place in the world. A diary writer like the other members of her family, Djuna has always scribbled out her ‘rambling memories and records that seem now like different segments of a cloth’, where, flooded together, ‘all these pieces, the public, the private, the in-between and the unwritten, form a dark whole that’s always out of reach…an always-in-progress cataract of words, rushing away from me’.
This darkness won over in Harvey, and it presents itself in another form of self-destructiveness in Djuna. Mired in grief, uncertain anymore of purpose, she turns towards Harvey’s married brother, Bruce. They embark on a stumbling affair, the aim of which is unclear, for while there is a degree of attraction and need, she cannot for herself even justify their actions. Perhaps some motivation is explained in her ‘sun-drenched denial’, or her experiencing emotion as ‘one intensity of feeling, and it takes in everything: rage and joy and love and sorrow, all of it’.
Djuna’s conflicted emotions lead to her borrowing Bruce’s young daughter Ella, and together they embark on a road trip to visit her father, now living in a partly-itinerant, Maori community. The prose, always so exactly there, so precise and alert to small detail, comes even more into its own as the child and faux-mother traverse in companionable yet lonesome form through coastal landscapes. The rain seems continually to be drenching on the land lushly green and remote.
Told in vignettes, first person, with snapshots from Djuna’s memories, we read life as a patchwork of scattered perceptions which can fit together at best haphazardly, imperfectly. Her notebooks, and these memories within, were only ever to be glimpses, ‘missing parts of the whole, secret panels that opened into the delights of the old, dark world’; a quilt which one can only ever view one segment at a time.
Landscape imagery suffuses their journey, washing with memories over the reader, overwhelming, which is perhaps the purpose. The presence of the sea is always there, the waves forever casting out and pulling back in. This echoes the strange waves of intimacy that continually lap throughout the story. The prose is exquisite. Djuna views the shadow of a hill as a ‘purple hood lowering over the land and the sea’, and notes the ‘sugary black depth of the sky, the aurulent puddles of nebula, the centre of the galaxy turned on its side’.
Conroy paints a world of ambiguity. Hazy front and back cover photographic montages reinforce the concept of dimensions of greys: for the world of these characters and their emotions and decisions is anything but black and white. Ragged photographs of a wild ocean frame the first and last pages of text, entrapping the reader within this physical world. As Djuna comes to realise, she is one small being ‘bobbing along on the stream of life’; and in this, she is living, and experiencing, the simple details, the gift, of ordinariness.
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.
First published takahe 87