All this by chance is a beautiful, beautiful book about memory and identity. One of the characters muses at one point on how much of us is us, and how much is made up from the photos and paintings and books we surround ourselves with: “The before people” – “No one ever quite works out the mix”.
Stephen leaves New Zealand in the late 40s and travels to London to train as a pharmacist. He falls in love with Eva, a young woman raised by a Quaker couple and keen to join him in his home country to start a new life. But prior to leaving they received notification about Eva’s past – that she came from a German Jewish family, many of whom died in the camps, and that one survivor of that family is in London.
Despite Stephen wanting to “Deny that their lives were already somewhere else, where there was no going back from”, their lives are now on a new trajectory. Babcia, Eva’s Aunt Ruth, travels with them to Auckland, to a house where the ghosts of the past move in with them and are engaged with in different ways: the son David eager to know all about his past and his faith; the daughter Lisa growing up closer to her father’s view that the past is best left to leave the present in peace; Eva spending hours silently keeping her aunt company. Babcia for the most part sitting quietly day after day, the only person she can talk to a friend from the same camp who they meet on the voyage over, a friend Stephen hates for bringing unwanted information into his life.
All this by chance moves through the generations, with the point of view altering as we read. It is a beautifully structured novel with the style and voice subtly changing with time and character. “The past is always waiting to happen” – a thought O’Sullivan echoes in the novel, where names are mentioned before we catch up with who those people are and the roles they play. And that is the central question – are they just roles? What is an authentic self-determined existence, and what one that just emerges through time, place and acquaintance?
All the characters struggle with articulating who they ‘are’, Stephen when he first meets Eva, “unable to give her what she hoped to hear, some privileged understanding of what made him the man she loved.” Lisa leaving her boyfriend Fergus when she sees him shy away from a dead body and lie on a principle of supporting the workers against the rich – recognising he sees everything as a performance and not real life. Esther, David’s daughter: “I’m the sort of end to a long story I don’t even know”. And when we catch up with Fergus, he is a bitter man still not able to fathom the role he played in his own and others’ lives.
The mystery of Babcia is in the heart of many of the characters; was she sitting there in a pleasant haze of not-remembering, or in a nightmare of the opposite? Stephen hoping the former and David wracked with guilt over the latter and convinced “they could have done much more”. David who wants so much to be part of the faith and people of Babcia “aware he was on the edge of so much yet believing himself at the centre”.
Lisa left Fergus due to his distancing himself from the world, but she ends up suspecting that there is an inevitability in such distance, that “If nothing is known about a person, then anything is possible. If anything is possible, there is no guessing with substance.” It is fruitless to think of “The end of life that must be there in the beginning, somehow, surely?” Life is too random, too full of agnostic Jewish fathers, silent African children, Australian librarians in London and Czech PhD students taking time out in New South Wales.
All this by chance is a novel to savour, to be moved by, and one to make you ponder your own place in the blurry selection of memories each one of us calls our past.