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Author: Ashleigh Young
Publisher: Victoria University Press
When reading a personal essay I look for that glimmer of recognition, that secret sign, that the writer knows me in some inexplicable way. Often what I’m looking for, without really knowing it, is a perfectly formed sentence or phrase which captures wholly what I’m feeling, or have felt before. Wellington writer Ashleigh Young’s debut essay collection, Can You Tolerate This?, is filled with such glimmers and moments of companionship.
This is a collection several years in the making and it roams widely: from the story of a postman in rural southeastern France building his legacy, to young Japanese people who withdraw to their bedrooms and hide themselves away from the world, to Young’s own childhood in Te Kuiti, and on to her adolescence and adult years in Wellington. A dedicated runner, she writes of the thrill of running in the early morning dark around the southern coast of Wellington, and her time spent working at the Katherine Mansfield Birthplace with a host of dedicated Mansfield-ites.
Young’s family feature prominently throughout the book, in particular her brother JP. “Big Red” follows JP from the music scene in Hamilton where he fronted the band Clampers, to jobs such as mushroom picking and a stint as a shuttle driver braving the icy roads in Colorado, and back to Wellington. Throughout, Young observes herself as the younger sister enthralled by her brilliant brother, and also wonders about the problem of trying to make his stories her own. The essay takes its title from the moniker given to the ugly red bomber-style jacket that JP wore incessantly during his Hamilton days, causing great embarrassment to his family and friends. An illustration of Big Red features on the cover of the book, perhaps as an apology to the spurned jacket itself.
The most personal essay of the collection is “Bikram’s Knee”, in which Young writes about dealing with an eating disorder, and her obsession with Bikram Yoga. It’s the kind of essay that resonates, even if the topic in question isn’t one the reader can directly relate to. It’s brave to write about something so personal, but also, it feels imperative—it’s one of the ways in which we can help others to feel less isolated, and Young is excellent company.
Can You Tolerate This? is a heartfelt, wise, and important book. For a collection of essays to immerse yourself in, look no further.