The joys and blemishes of humanity

By Paula Green

Vincent O'Sullivan's stories fiercely attend to life. Photo / Greg Bowker
Vincent O'Sullivan's stories fiercely attend to life. Photo / Greg Bowker

Vincent O'Sullivan, the New Zealand Poet Laureate, has written numerous collections of poetry, short stories, plays and critical works. He has a reputation as a master practitioner of the short-story genre, and his new collection, The Families, reconfirms that claim.

The title is a perfect entrance as these stories are chiefly about families - about relations between husbands and wives, parents and children. What I particularly love is the way such an economical form can expose such inviting complexity. The fathers and husbands are chalk and cheese: grumpy, bigoted; tender, insightful. To read through the collection is to read through the joys and blemishes of humanity.

O'Sullivan's writing is sinuous, perfectly paced and variously pitched with details of place that set the narrative alight. There are veins of internal self-examination that add another layer to the narrating voice. These stories build characters who matter, who get under your skin though their cringe-worthiness, their utter familiarity or their ability to shake and move you.

Sometimes he uses the genre to augment a moment as in Mrs Bennett and the Bears.

When Edward (he is married) meets Mrs Keiko Bennett in Japan, they are caught in a deluge of rain and he pulls her under his coat, just for a minute. It is a rare, shining moment in his life that he will store in his memory - it will stand as an unsurpassable moment of love. It was like a cinematic close-up that generates such heat and intensity it is palpable.

The stories loop and overlap within their frame. This adds to their complexity and ensures they have an enduring aftertaste. Holding On is an excellent example.
The story's beginning questions the idea that your life passes before you if you are drowning. A man is in the middle of divorce proceedings, but his lawyer is more interested in the fact his client's wife just saved the lives of two drowning fishermen.

Then it feels like the husband himself is drowning as he observes snatches of his life passing before him - memories of his wife are framed in fits and starts as though she is, he tells us, in the windows of a train carriage hurtling away. The story has a terrific image at the end.

Adages keep cropping up: "Life is not just a nice red apple", "cleanliness is the house's jewel", "people are never as stupid as they look". A father advises his children that if there is truth anywhere they have to make it for themselves.

O'Sullivan's treasury of stories illuminate familial relations from the perspective and
insight of age, impending death, thwarted expectations and unexpected connections.

These stories fiercely attend to life, not just in the different New Zealand locations, and in the marvellously depicted characters, but in the way truth is made and then remade in the relationships that connect us.

The Families by Vincent O'Sullivan (Victoria University Press $35)

- NZ Herald

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