Kindred by Tony Chapelle
They always say never judge a book by the cover, but we always do. People are paid to help us do that, to draw us to a book on a shelf with the cover art. In the case of ‘Kindred’ I was drawn into an assumption that the stock photo and Lucida Handwriting font would not enclose very worthy contents. How wrong I was.
This is a beautiful book from start to finish. It is polished and perfectly weighted. It is narrated in the voices of the two main characters, Tela Gilbard and Jamie Ascott, husband and wife. They have a daughter Augusta, known as Gus, and the only other voice present is that of a distant ancestor, Adelaide Augusta Gilbard, whose Victorian journal is quoted at length as the story unfolds. Gus is named after her.
This is a family saga, a modern day version of a Victorian saga. You will quickly see the relevance of that reference to Victorian fiction, because Tela Gilbard is a scholar of such writing, doctor and later professor, visiting scholar and international expert. Her husband Jamie is a lesser scholar, proof-reader and occasional writer. He is the home maker and the main parent to their daughter. We follow their family saga from the 1960s to the present day.
We watch time passing, Gus growing to adulthood and then into parenthood herself. We are often given two views of events, from both Tela and Jamie. Sometimes quite different views of the same event. In his small study, Jamie has two volumes of his great grandmother’s journal. Leather bound books that say ‘Accounts’ on the spine, but which contain her innermost thoughts and her private diary of feelings about what is happening in the early history of New Zealand’s colonial past. She describes events around the New Zealand Wars of the 1860s, living in Taranaki, where land was grabbed from Māori and distributed to settlers. Tela’s branch of the family lived in Fiji, and so she and her daughter have been subject to various racial prejudices for being people of colour.
All these strands circle and move through time, leading you deep into the bonds of family history and long-held friendships. A whole lifetime passes in front of us.
Chapelle has a lovely way with words. Take this brief description of a passing character: ‘She is tall and thin, like a catwalk model gone to seed. Her hair is that silvery blonde you know must come from a bottle and her smile is as false as her hair. I don’t like her; and she doesn’t like me.’ Beautifully done, all we need to know to form an impression of dislike and move along with the story.
Towards the end of the book, Tela develops what is called Mild Cognitive Disorder, better known as dementia, and we helplessly watch as her fine brain begins to lose its way. Her life in books and her fine library are useless now, as she is unable to recall the stories that she has read in the past, or concentrate enough on the paragraph that she read a few minutes before. This poignant description comes from Jamie, who as always is caring for her: ‘She moves away from my side, then turns to me again. As I watch I see the blank curtain of confusion and doubt lift for a moment, like a cloud passing from the sun. She doesn’t smile but her eyes are alert. She is there, behind them, properly there. Her expression is one of sudden awareness, as though something hidden but of huge significance has been revealed to her. And what she says next takes me by surprise … But a moment later she is gone again. Standing there, gone; and I am alone.’
So sad, and so beautifully captured by the writer.
Reviewer: Marcus Hobson
Published by Rangitawa Publishing, RRP $35