Friday, April 30, 2010

Breath-taking coastline

I've been away from home since Monday on a graced journey with friends. I hope to find more words than these at a later stage, but for now need to sit quietly with my metaphorical map, water bottle and backpack and to ponder the places we have been and those we have yet to travel.

Being away means I have the delights of a week of your stories and poems to catch up on... I hope you have all been well.

Last night, I hurried my bags along from plane to conveyor belt to trolly to car as efficiently as I could and drove the half hour stretch from Dunedin airport (with its smart new runway, control tower and buildings endearingly flanked by pasture and paddocks) to the University Book Shop in Great King Street. It was important to be there in time to celebrate the launch of Penelope Todd's long-awaited new novel, Island (published by Penguin Group (NZ)).

Fellow writer and friend, Emma Neale, introduced Penelope and Island and has given me permission to print her launch speech here ---

Island launch speech

University Book Shop

Thursday 29 April 2010

I suppose when most of us hear the title of Penelope's latest novel, we might think of our own community – we island dwellers together. Or, embraced by bookshelves as we are right now, we might remember some classical and literary precedents : those ancient forefathers of TV reruns of everything from Gilligan's Island to Survivor Samoa. In Greek myth, for example, the Islands of the Blessed were said to be the final resting place for the souls of heroes and the virtuous. So perhaps we'd expect visions of some far flung paradise in the pages of this Island. At the other extreme, we might recall the bleak marooning of Robinson Crusoe, who fought to survive on what he called the Island of Despair, and who at one point gains religion, thanking God for a fate in which the only thing that is missing for him is society.

'To island', as a verb, of course means to insulate, or to protect. In the nineteenth-century setting of Penelope's novel, ailing immigrants and sailors are sent to a fictional Quarantine Island, to protect mainlanders from the threat of disease. So there's an immediate link to the archetype of the island as a place of bitter isolation and suffering. But what possible version of paradise could there be, in a tiny half-village of hard-worked nurses and pain-wracked patients?

Well, take one part need, add one part gentleness: heat them together, and the cloistered environment becomes a crucible for desire and love.

I think the most extraordinary achievement of this book – even better than its gaspingly beautiful prologue – is its knowing display of the strange compulsions of attraction, the human magnetism that leaps social boundaries like age and health, and historical standards of propriety and decorum. In Penelope's novel the life force surges forward in the shape of desire, insisting on its right to exist even in the most starved of circumstances. Yet in some startling scenes the book also asks – do love and attraction actually become destructive, when they dig in their heels and declare their own primacy? When is a lover wrong to insist on saving the beloved's life? When is a caregiver morally correct to withdraw warmth and nurturing?

I'm phrasing all of this in a slightly abstract way, because I don't want to rob you either of the pleasures of narrative pace, or of the full shock of the ethical dilemma that young nurse Liesel faces in cruel, doubled form. I hope it doesn't siphon off the fizz of discovering the story for yourselves if I do say a couple of specific things about the characters. I loved meeting them on the page. There's Liesel, who talks 119-to-the-dozen, is briskly capable and practical, and is only just growing aware of the effect she has on men. She's a kind of prototype modern woman: the type many of our European great-great grandmothers must have been for any Pakeha to have survived mentally and physically in the new land. There's also a severely injured but deliciously salty sea captain, drawn to Liesel despite himself; there's young, athletic runaway Kahu, who shares Liesel's instinctive gifts for healing, but who's only just on the cusp of manhood, so who can't always challenge her in the ways she needs. There's Martha, the hospital matron, whose indulgences of whisky and keeping pet donkeys give a wonderfully quirky yet grounded sense of personality. I have to say there is also a lovely donkey-father: for me he's changed that saying 'making an ass of himself'. He's quite the tender gentleman.

As with all of Penelope's earlier work, the writing in this book often has a deep, melting poetry – it asks you to slow down, let the images and descriptions send out their full impact in expanding ripples of response. Yet the plot – with all its high drama and its erotic turns – also keeps you scudding swiftly along with its current. It's as if the book has two quite different yet somehow perfectly compatible speeds. I found it compulsive reading to the point where I worked on deceitful strategies to sneak more reading time into each day. Such as pretending to sort clean laundry, with the book concealed under a cloth nappy, so that I'd look boringly occupied to my 7-year-old. He seems to accept that clothes have to get folded, whereas reading a book – well! It's interruptible idleness.

I said at the start that the book touches on several aspects of our understanding of what an 'island' setting might bring. There's the potential paradise of desire; there's the flip-side of exile and desolation brought on by terrible illness, and love tested to its limits. But although the novel is set in the nineteenth century, there is also 'us': we current isle-men and women. For it's not only Liesel who might seem like a prototype modern, in some of the freedoms she claims. Kahu and Martha also at times vividly reflect us back at ourselves in their language and actions. This ensures that we don't treat the historical texture of the novel as 'other' or escapist. The bigger questions the characters face about morality, destiny, love and lust are those that may still trouble our minds, or make our hearts swerve off course, on any otherwise unsuspecting Thursday evening. In this sense, although Penelope's novel touches on all those island associations with a delicate, original hand, the one she examines most attentively is exactly what Robinson Crusoe missed: society; ourselves.

Island did all the things I want a book to do. It took me away to a place that was far from my own circumstances, and yet it also brought me back, better able to reflect on what those circumstances are. I'm so pleased that Penelope asked me to launch it, and I'm honoured to hold the boat steady for a moment while you, its future readers, climb in, and head off for a breath-taking coastline.

Congratulations, Penelope, and thank you for all the solitary, hard graft you've put in to helping us look at both our past and our own world afresh.

Yes, thank you, dear Penelope - and congratulations.


Thank you, Emma.

Penelope is one of our Tuesday poets and author of the blog, Life in the Intertidal Zone.


  1. Claire, thanks so much for posting this warm and full account. Am feeling a bit 'post natally' weird but I'm sure I'll rebond with the baby in due course. Thanks for holding it so tenderly, with love, P.

  2. 'Tis a pleasure and an honour, Pen.

    I have no doubt your Island will draw many a traveler to its shores and that each and every one of us will be enlivened by the encounters and experiences we find there.

    L, C x