Book review: The Virgin And The Whale

By John McCrystal

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NZ writer Carl Nixon.
NZ writer Carl Nixon.

He's a contender, Carl Nixon. He's an acclaimed playwright, has won significant awards for his short stories and he's come close with his novels, too. His previous novels, Rocking Horse Road and Settlers' Creek, were long-listed for the prestigious IMPAC Dublin Literary Awards.

Nixon's writing has hitherto been a trifle old-fashioned, in that his stock-in-trade has been straightforward realism, unperturbed by most of the literary fashions of the last three decades. But in his latest, The Virgin And The Whale, he tries on something new for size.

At the heart of it, The Virgin And The Whale is all about the power and importance of story. The reader is alerted to the author's intention to explore the role of the creation of identity by three epigrams to the text. And the novel itself features a story within a story within the story.

The novel purports to be based upon a real story told to Nixon by an admirer of his fiction. That story is of a young man who has returned from the trenches of World War I with a major brain injury, sustained when the femur of a comrade torn apart in the burst of a shell penetrates his skull.

Although he is physically healed and has his full faculties, Paul Blackwell has no memory of anything that happened before he regained consciousness half-buried in mud and blood in the wrecked trench. From his perspective, he was quite literally born into war; the only identity he acknowledges is the name bestowed upon him by his rescuers and his medical attendants: Lucky.

His wife, of course, wants her husband back, but her attempts to jog his memory are met with outright hostility.

Her search for a breakthrough drives Mrs Blackwell to engage Elizabeth, a nurse who comes highly recommended by all who have seen her work with traumatised returned men. Elizabeth is reluctant, but something about Lucky/Paul's case prompts her to help on a trial basis. She succeeds in striking up a rapport and while she despairs of restoring his memory, she believes she can help him make progress in building a new life - until a doctor declares his memory loss to be a symptom of schizophrenia and persuades his wife that he ought to be committed to Sunnyside Mental Hospital for "treatment".

Meanwhile, Elizabeth's own husband is missing, presumed dead, in France. To distract her 4-year-old son from asking after his dad, she has begun spinning him a yarn about a man who sets off to see the world in a hot-air balloon, and who meets a talking tiger in the jungle after his balloon crashes. The tiger enlists him to try to get his mate and his cub back from poachers who have captured them.

The stories are pushed along at the same rate towards a simultaneous climax, and all the while the status of the master narrative is uncertain. The setting is fictional, but the town of Mansfield is patently recognisable as Christchurch. The author self-consciously toys with various plot developments and endings. It seems doubtful, as he claims, that this is a true story. But there is truth and there is truth. Just as the story Elizabeth spins for Jack eases him into a place where he can begin to consider having lost his dad, The Virgin And The Whale offers us fragmentary insights into the way our national memory constructs our national identity.

With all that self-consciousness going on, The Virgin And The Whale is an ambitious project. But Nixon is no mere fashion victim. This is an intelligently constructed novel and, best of all, a beautifully told story.

The Virgin And The Whale by Carl Nixon (Vintage $37.99).

- NZ Herald

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