Janice Redmond has had a terrible childhood; neglectful parents, constantly being moved from one school to another, being abused by various men, and nowhere she lived had a fridge …
Thirty years later, Janice, along with her big green fridge, is on her way to an Arts New Zealand awards ceremony, where she will receive her Antarctica Writers Residency, which she will take up the next day, and for which she was waitlisted and is a late recipient. Janice is used to this, used to residing in “makeshift liminal spaces”; she was waitlisted and then a late admission into her creative writing class. She is used to not being the first choice and narrowly missing things. She narrowly misses out on receiving a break-up settlement by one day, misses out having her first work, the spineless Utter and terrible destruction being considered ‘a novel’ by one page.
But Janice is a “glass-half-full kind of person” and tries to see all her setbacks as opportunities to nurture her writing. And she embarks on documenting her gratitude to the various people in her personal and literary life in the Acknowledgments for the novel she will write after her time on the ice, but which she has already written: The ice shelf. And that is where The ice shelf starts, middles, and ends.
The ice shelf is a wonderful piece of metafiction, telling us about Janice’s history, her warped sense of herself and others, the snobbish and cliquey New Zealand literary scene, and the continuous low level angst of living in a New Zealand where the weather is being disrupted by climate change, and “a piece of ice shelf the size of New Zealand falls off the polar cap every day.” Janice gets her only sense of self-worth through social media, her minute circle of ‘likers’ and ‘RTers’, and she posts and tweets in an upbeat way throughout her various disasters – many of which are of her own making, fuelled by vodka and orange.
As Janice battles through windy Wellington with her fridge, and recalls and experiences her life, she starts to edit The ice shelf, gradually whittling away her work and herself. Her narration of her painful childhood, and her existence on the far edges of the literary scene, are funny but tragic. Her naivety is the source of much of the humour in The ice shelf, making her an unreliable narrator: “If the Meeting was populated only by men, that wasn’t the result of any kind of prejudice, it was just because the women hadn’t finished the washing up yet.”
And so, it is a bit of a shock when you end up feeling sorry for Janice, seeing the cliques that shun her through her eyes, and along with her “begin to cruise among the angular haircuts and commonplace objects pinned to lapels” in the Kōwhai Room of the National Library, waiting for the awards ceremony. You are concerned about her as she prepares herself for Antarctica “the cold expanse that lies not too far away from our islands and perhaps even closer to the New Zealand psyche”, as she gets inspiration about the New Zealand character from The cinema of unease, as she worries that she might have warmth that will threaten the ice, or that the ice will take her last piece of warmth.
Janice has no community to bounce ideas off to get a sense of who she is and why she writes, and as often happens with excluded people, her whole life has become this one thing, trying to validate herself as a writer. And through the novel we tragically see that validation melt away like ice on a warming planet. I loved The ice shelf, see what you think.