Guest reviewer Maggie Rainey Smith
I work in a bookshop and so I’m used to thumbing new novels to look for inspiration, and sometimes I feel saturated with good prose, but not always enticed. And, so I took down Sarah Laing’s debut novel from the shelf, Chapter 1, New York, 2003 and was immediately impressed with the clarity, assured tone and impetus within the words. I promptly purchased the book, so I could finish reading it.
The story has many layers and timeframes moving back and forth mostly between New York and Wellington (but also London and Pahiatua). The author has lived in both New York and Wellington, as a student at Victoria University and a graphic designer in Manhattan. One assumes it is this intimate experience of Manhattan as a young ‘outsider’ that informs the wit, perception and terrific observations that are rendered so well about both contemporary and last century New York.
Rebecca’s story is mirrored and juxtaposed against the story of Klara, her grandmother, a Jewish evacuee from pre-war Germany (and an orphan) who grows up in New York with her sister Esther and her Tante Dagmar, but immigrates to New Zealand in the 1950’s after meeting Owen Quinn, a Kiwi bloke at a concert in Central Park. Klara fails in her bid for a place on the Chicago Symphony Orchestra which shakes her faith in her musical talent, and so she takes up an offer of marriage from Owen and arrives in Wellington in the 1950’s. At the time she meets Owen, she is with a nice touch of irony, playing in the orchestra pit for the musical South Pacific on Broadway. Owen and Klara have one son, Frankie and the novel opens at the moment that his daughter, Rebecca arrives in New York in 2003 with her boyfriend Toby seeking her fame and fortune with the cello.
Klara is a classical performer, confined to the cultural desert that is New Zealand in the fifties, whereas her grand-daughter Rebecca wins a scholarship to London which she blows, and then ends up in New York hoping to break into the music scene with her cello in a more contemporary musical (think punk) environment. And, she is hoping to make contact with the now deceased Klara’s sister Esther, and to track down a family cello.
The novel actual starts in the middle and takes us back and forth, in and out of locations, decades and characters but very successfully and without losing momentum or pace. The plot has many permutations including the coming of age of Rebecca in Wellington in the 1990’s as a newly diagnosed diabetic, her last year at high school and the school ball. She frequents Midnight Espresso, the Vault and Bar Bodega, and wears her Morrissey concert T-shirt… “My Mother tried to wash it more, but I didn’t want Edith Sitwell’s sepia face and jewel-encrusted fingers to be eroded by the washing powder’s hungry enzymes.” She learns to live with diabetes and falls in love. Sarah Laing does sex very well (there’s quite a lot of it), and she renders the ordinary, the messy, the scary and the romantic in ways that are fresh, savvy, and tender.
I have to confess to being more engaged with Rebecca’s journey than Klara’s, and I guess it is not always easy to juggle successfully and with equal weight, two lives in different decades. I found the writing more fluid and the detail more fascinating in the contemporary episodes. But, having said that, I was enchanted with Klara as a young child in New York 1936 and in particular her relationship with Herr Weiss, the cello maker. And I enjoyed reading about her experience as a new young mother in the fifties in New Zealand, not quite fitting the expectations of the time, and preferring her career to motherhood.
But mostly I loved the contemporary London and New York scenes and the splendidly neurotic flatmate Wendy, with her Californian King bed that she was happy to sub-let. The love triangle between Rebecca, her old flame Bruno and her current beau Toby, is engaging. Sarah Laing does the ordinary stuff really well. “He’s part of me, and he’s entirely separate. Even though I know this I feel self-consciousness on his behalf. His legs are a bit skinny…. He’s not the dreamboat I visualised for myself… when we lie together I’m the slice of peach in his spoon.” And this, when Rebecca and Toby are exploring New York “The vegans sit up on bar stools, skinny legs sinkered by canvas sneakers.” (Okay more skinny legs, but these are sinkered.)
Sarah Laing has originality and clarity. When Rebecca is thinking about her grandfather who is in a rest home in nappies, she writes “When I gave him grapes, he spat the pips onto the carpet. I imagined what remained of his brain to be barnacled to the inside of his skull, leaving a clear pond in the middle.”
And I rather like this, “I plunged my hands into my blazer pocket and watched my shadow desaturate as the clouds crossed the sun.”
I highly recommend this novel. Think somewhere between Zoe Heller and Zadie Smith. It is a book that takes itself seriously while being witty and insightful, tender and scathing, smart and innocent, fast-paced and even a little bit disgusting (description of zits on a mirror) as well as delightful. It takes big subjects (Jewish war orphan, the cello, immigration, first love, sex, and a marriage proposal) and it renders them not as melodramas, but as somehow extraordinarily ordinary. The prose is utterly confident and never seems to falter. Sarah Laing has not stinted in her research around music, diabetes, and location, unless of course, along with her writing and graphic art, she is also a musician?
It’s a grand first novel, but of course, Sarah is not really a novice, as she made a pretty impressive debut with her very well received short story collection Coming Up Roses. Although the jury is still out for me about this cover. I like the floral background and the etching of the New York skyline but I feel the image of what I think is meant to be Rebecca in her grandmother’s dress is slightly overstated. I’m of two minds really, as the dress is beautiful as is the young woman and the whole thing is rather sumptuous - but I don’t like to see images of characters – I prefer to imagine them.