First published in the Newtown Review of Books (18 July 2017), my review of Nike Sulway’s luminous novel, Dying in the first person.
This is a powerful and extraordinarily beautiful story of family, love and sacrifice. Sulway has created a world we enter slowly, uncovering the past and its hurts in small steps. It draws the reader into a place of mystery and wonder as Samuel is brought face to face with an emissary, Ana, who brings news of his long-estranged twin brother.
We learn of Morgan’s death in the canal near their home in Amsterdam in the opening lines —‘A woman came across the field, carrying the body of my brother, who had drowned.’ Ana’s first contact is through letters, then telephone calls. Samuel and his mother, Solange, have had no first-hand contact with Morgan for many years but on accompanying Morgan’s body back to be buried, Ana stays, allowing herself to rest, to be loved. In Sulway’s depiction of her growing relationships with Samuel and Solange, there is a longing and vulnerability that all readers will recognise.
Sulway explores ideas of sacrifice and the accompanying notions of obligation, commitment and entitlement; these are part of loving somebody. Her characters’ offerings to those they love are almost biblical in their scope—life, freedom, memory and voice—but we can see echoes of them in our own lives. We all make huge, yet unrecognised, sacrifices every day, for love.
It is through the book’s gradual unfolding that we learn of Morgan’s life, his self-imposed isolation from his family and why and how he died. Ana’s complicated relationship with Morgan is teased out. Ultimately, she has wanted to save him: ‘I believed I could rescue him, restore him to himself, simply by being patient and kind.’ Sulway’s examination of Morgan’s mental state reminded me of Jeffrey Euginides in his 2011 book The Marriage Plot where Madeleine, who wants to save Leonard, is told: ‘But you can only save yourself.’ Sulway is acutely aware of our limitations in treating emotional pain.
The book’s central theme is the power of language. Sulway portrays its role, through narrative, in recording truth, or lack of truth, which then, in turn, allows us to see reality and change and grow. As children, the boys develop a secret language, sophisticated and complex. As adults, Morgan writes books in this language and becomes famous; the language has taken on a life of its own, studied by linguists, the focus of international conference. His books are translated by Samuel who is conflicted about his role in appropriating words not his own. Who owns these stories?
As boys, they had developed an entire world in this secret language—the island of Nahum—inhabited by men only. Sulway’s examination of the roles of men and women, their strictures and freedoms, is light and deft. She never hammers home a message, leaving nuance and murkiness to allow us to reach our own conclusions. While her attachment to her women characters is evident—Solange, in particular, her talents, intellect, resourcefulness, independence—she tells her story through men and their agency. Women’s stories and powers, the influence of a mother in shaping her children, is always present but in the background.
One spring morning,’ my brother would intone, holding his tiny craft aloft in this wide, pale hands, ‘the father leaves his son sleeping and goes to the sea. He does not know, when he steps onto the deck, whether he will return, whether it will be a good day, or a bad day, but he goes down to the sea, because that is what men do.
And at the end, we are left with Ana’s sacrifice, her selflessness as she, too, goes into the storm.
Sulway’s writing is beautiful and evocative. She forces her readers to slow their pace, to absorb every detail through her recreation of scenes in real time precision: the trappings and formalities of a funeral, the basting of a turkey.
In the kitchen, our mother laid out her ingredients, as well as her needles, skewers, scissors and string, her long-handled, flat-faced spoons and glass bowls. She had taken out her recipe form its hiding place, where it lay folded all year, cheek-to-cheek with a page clipped from the newspaper in 1949, which had detailed instructions on how to truss a turkey. Once everything was in place, she opened a bottle of dry Semillon, poured herself a shallow, golden glassful and began.
In many ways, this is a book about the complexity of human relationships and the little that children ever really know of their parents’ lives.
Sulway, Nike, Dying in the first person, Transit Lounge Publishing, Melbourne, 2016, ebook and paperback (304 pages), RRP $29.99