The New Ships by Kate Duignan
If you like your novels with multiple threads running through, tightly woven like a korowai cloak, then this is the book for you.
The New Ships is a many layered family history narrated by Peter Collie, a partner in a prestigious Wellington law firm. Peter's wife Moira has recently died from cancer, casting him adrift from many of the aspects of his life which had kept him firmly anchored. To understand the threads, we rove back through his life; the relationship he had with a French woman called Geneviève while living on a boat in Amsterdam in the 70s, the child they bore together and then lost, and then Peter's subsequent life back in New Zealand with his wife Moira and their son Aaron. Although Peter and Moira raised Aaron from birth, Peter is not his true father. Aaron will chart his own course towards discovering his true family.
When Aaron returns to London after Moira’s funeral, he fails to make contact with his father and eventually heads for India and Pakistan in search of his real relatives and a missing uncle. Peter is forced to dig into the past, excavating his relationship with Moira and confronting the paternity of his son. The novel is set in 2001 against a backdrop of the Twin Towers, terrorism and the growing unease across the globe. This proximity to the current time is interesting, because as you read you constantly forget that we are not reading about the present.
I love the way that Peter is portrayed, increasingly unhinged by events around him; the loss of his wife has left him only working part-time and he is becoming disengaged from his career, the disappearance of his son into dangerous regions of the world, and the sighting of a French girls who closely resembles Geneviève and could so easily be the daughter for whom only a piece of paper is the confirmation of her death.
Underneath all the unravelling events are another layer of miniature stories and plots. A manuscript of engravings by Marc Chagall that tell the legend of Daphnis and Chloe, a nude portrait painted by Moira and left in her beach-house studio, Matthew and his attempts to join protests against government involvement in Afghanistan. All these vignettes circle and weave through the narrative, coming back into view time and again.
This is a beautifully crafted book, which centres around Wellington but allows us to globetrot to Amsterdam and Venice, London, India and Pakistan, before bringing us back to Wellington.
Reviewer: Marcus Hobson
Victoria University Press, RRP $30