Peter Collie is mourning the death of his wife Moira. In this fragile state he discovers that he was ignorant of much of Moira’s past, and even of her recent life. The tense relationship with his son Aaron, Moira’s biological son that he has fathered since birth, is almost at breaking point. And he makes some very bad decisions that threaten his career as a lawyer in a prestigious Wellington law firm.
Duignan’s depiction of Peter is deft and thoroughly believable. He makes terrible decisions, doesn’t ask pertinent questions, and doesn’t give up important bits of information … i.e. he is completely human – he is dogged by “the problem of hope”. Peter’s story is framed both by a romantic purchase of his youth: a copy of Chagall’s lithographs of Daphnis and Chloe, and the story of Chagall’s flight from occupied France. Placing Peter’s, and everyone’s life, in the hands of the fates – especially as the book is set at the time of the Twin Towers and its aftermath.
Shortly after Moira’s funeral, Aaron returns to his actor’s life in London, but once back in London he disappears. Peter is frantic about his son, whilst trying to re-engage with his job, deal with an arch mother-in-law, Claudia, and his ailing parents in Wanganui (the book uses the spelling of the time). He also decides to sell their Castlepoint holiday home, and suddenly is facing the prospect of his long-deceased daughter from an earlier relationship still being alive – as he says “I am not at my best these days, I’m simply not at my best”.
It would be so easy to make a mess of this book, with so many complex storylines, but The new ships is elegantly structured and you never feel lost. Through the book we are asked to consider the role of political protest, the choices that at the time feel the right ones to protect those we love, but in retrospect might be seen as desertions, and the private feelings of resentment one can feel towards those close to you – spouses, parents, children.
I don’t really want to say much about what happens in the book, it is full of the gently unexpected. Peter’s grief is palpable “bawling my eyes out in the car on a side street in Berhampore.” He is reduced by events: Captured in a discovered painting, finding out one of his brightest work protégés has suffered a career-ending injury, even finding his real estate has shrunk. And realising that he thought one of the most commendable thing about his and Moira’s marriage was that each could draw a “veil over what each of us held private.”
But there are also affirmations: his love for Aaron, his tenderness towards his parents, his efforts to ‘do the right thing’ over the years. Peter’s voice is male, compared at times to Orpheus, who travelled to the underworld in an attempt to retrieve his wife, but who was also eventually pulled apart by women, women who are “pulling things apart simply in order to get some relief from ceaselessly having to keep their households together.” Once Moira and Geneviève (his previous major relationship) are dead, Peter is free to consider what his relationships might have meant, and how he might have hurt the women he loved, earlier on with his casual infidelity, and later with his money and privilege.
The book moves around in time (from the 1970s to 2002) and place: houseboats in Amsterdam, cold flats in London, India and Pakistan on the other end of the phone, Venice hotels, Mytilene on Lesbos, various North Island locations. The world is always in conflict, people keep secrets, they lie, struggle, fall in love, and try and work out their place in the world – and how much control they have over that. At one point The new ships nicely counters the fatalistic view of life with a recalling of Plato’s suggestion of the transmigration of souls – a type of Karmic justice. But Peter wants none of it: “Just give me the implacable, impersonal Fates, measuring out the thread and making their arbitrary cut.”
I think The new ships is saying we can try and determine our lives but in the end we are defined by those around us: our family, friends and even our casual acquaintances. A lovely book.