The Ice Shelf, Anne Kennedy, Victoria University Press, 2018
cover by Ant Sang
my little reading response
Anne Kennedy has delivered a range of poetry and fiction unlike any other local writer; in its linguistic agility, keen intelligence, mesmerising characters, playful elements, local attachments, elsewhere roving and ultimate daring. Two poetry collections have won the New Zealand National Book Award for Poetry: Sing-Song (2004) and The Darling North (2013). Her previous novel, The Last Days of the National Costume, was shortlisted for the New Zealand National Book Award for Fiction in 2014. She was Writer in Residence at Victoria University in 2014.
Victoria University have just released Anne Kennedy’s latest novel, The Ice Shelf, and it is one of the best books I have read in ages. I don’t say that lightly.
The Ice Shelf is the story of Janice, a writer about to take up an arts fellowship in Antarctica after recently separating from her boyfriend. It is set on the eve of her departure, as she makes her way to the award presentation at the National Library in Wellington. The novel, in a most original and invigorating way, represents the life of Janice through a book-length montage of acknowledgements. She reflects back through childhood to adulthood, through searing challenges (heartbreaking!) and an unshakeable need to give thanks. Everything that has happened to Janice (and I have no intention of spoiling the unfolding edges of the narrative), in her view, makes her a better writer. If her life had been a bed of roses, her ability and determination to write would have been compromised.
This is the novel’s first breathtaking grip: the voice of Janice as she reflects back and negotiates the equally challenging present (she has nowhere to stay and a fridge to find a home for on a tempestuous night). The narrative comes together in the fragmented pieces of her telling, yet like viewing a mosaic that depends upon unity out of pieces, the narrative achieves glorious fluidity.
The second breathtaking grip is the way in which this is a novel of disintegration: as Janice moves through the storm-battered city with her fridge to the awards night, she keeps removing The Ice Shelf manuscript from the fridge, and abandoning chunks in a ruthless endeavour to pare back her novel. She is editing her own life, the life I read in my copy of the published novel, the life of disintegration: family, relationships, friendships, homes, her place within the writing world. Gut-punching stuff.
The third breathtaking grip is the way the montage of recollection and self-assessment occur within a fertile layering of the real. Wellington, a northern commune, flats, makeshift homes, all are searingly real. Janice’s separated parents are acutely rendered, achingly so. I was so caught in the scene of the novel’s making I could not sleep last night. I kept returning to locations and characters and situations.
The fourth breathtaking grip is the fact this is a novel about writing: about the drive to write, to be published, to be supported, to be recognised, to be reviewed and to be read. Anne traverses the writing world with a bright torch. We get to see the conflict and harmonies of a writing life within any number of writing communities. It is both funny and recognisable (not in individual people but in situations and yearnings).
The fifth breathtaking grip, perhaps the most gasp-worthy for me, is the counterpoint of emotion; this is a novel that is downright funny but that is equally tragic. I adored the humour that shapes Janice’s voice, an utterly original voice as she attempts to be glad in the face of all that is bad. But I was side-smacked by the sequence of sadnesses and difficulties that hide inside that humour. The life of both child and adult in Janice’s witty exposures made me weep. I cannot think of a book that has made me laugh and weep to such a degree.
The sixth breathtaking grip is the way this is a book of love: you might wonder how this can be when Janice is so much under threat, and has endured and suffered a lifetime of wrongs. But this is a book of love because Janice never yields to complete disintegration. Writing is a force that saves her along with an ability to rescue herself. It seems to me that Anne herself has written a book out of intense love: a love of family, the world, Wellington and above all writing. It is as though each sentence is steered by the heart of the author and thus becomes a novel of connection and insight a much as it is a novel of collapse.
I have written these brief musings on the back of scant sleep and a novel haunting because I want to celebrate its arrival in the world. I cannot think of a novel that is so rich in effect, so intricately crafted, so grounded in a real world with all its grit and glitter, so in debt to prodigious reading and thinking, so pertinent to the unstable world(s) we inhabit, so anchored and so humane. I just love it.
Victoria University Press page