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May 11, 2014 | by  | in Arts Books |
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The Families by Vincent O’Sullivan

The Families by Vincent O’Sullivan
Victoria University Press
3.5 stars

I’m the sort of reader who’s allergic to short stories. When I read, I always like to give the text my all or nothing. I’m too stubborn to start a piece of writing that I know will finish a few pages later, just as I’ve really gotten into it.

This surely makes me the least qualified person to review The Families, a new collection of stories by Vincent O’Sullivan. Many older readers will pick up this book when the author’s name catches their eye; O’Sullivan is one of New Zealand’s literary giants and is currently our Poet Laureate. For those of us who are less familiar with his work – me included – we might approach with apprehension.

The Families collects portraits of middle-class New Zealanders connecting themselves to the people and places around them. It’s fraught with love, grief, humiliation, suppression, and fractured family ties. But it’s rendered simply and often endearingly. O’Sullivan is a gentle storyteller who beckons us forth slowly. We find ourselves submerged in the fictional world before even realising it, maybe because his stories are set in real places. His characters will walk down Oriental Parade into a southerly, or drive around the winding Eastern Bays, or stop for flat whites at a gift shop in Cambridge, just south of Hamilton. I can conjure up the feeling of that wind in my face without so much as a thought. Wellington readers, especially, will find much to savour in this book.

One of my favourites is ‘On Another Note’, which was written to fill in the blanks of an unfinished short story by Katherine Mansfield. It recounts a lonely woman’s few days in Paris. The subtle shifts in consciousness cleverly echo Mansfield’s writing. And Paris, like Wellington in other stories, is not only viewed but created through the eyes of the characters.

Sometimes O’Sullivan’s characters are slightly less believable, as in ‘Frame’ where he tries to inhabit the mind of an immigrant wife, though the story is still captivating. ‘The Families’ gave the collection its title, so I expected something monumental, but it falls flat. He doesn’t quite afford his young heroine enough depth. Her choices won’t be convincing to some (like me), but then, perhaps I’m not the reader he had in mind.

A real high point is ‘Josie’. where O’Sullivan creates an incredibly free-flowing and realistic narrative voice. It makes for a thoroughly good read. An elderly woman grapples with the memory of her late husband and his gruff voice sometimes infiltrates her memories. It is so clear and distinct that we hear it, too.

The book sometimes lacks colourful or beautiful imagery, instead tending towards clear, lucid description. But in ‘Josie’, O’Sullivan finds a balance between the two. There are some stunning, simple moments: “She is standing where everything in the world is pure darkness apart from the light she is standing in … Sometimes she is herself and at other times there are lines she needs to say that make her someone else, but it doesn’t bother her if she fails to say them.”

These brilliant lucid moments are what make this book special, though at times they feel few and far between. But when you do find them, already transported by O’Sullivan’s mastery of so many voices and places, they are worth it.

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