Attraction – book review

Attraction, by Ruby Porter

This is a fabulous looking cover, which compelled me to buy Attraction on sight. I dived in and found the writing as terrific as the presentation. I am now going to read everything Ruby Porter writes on any subject at all. Attraction is just such an incredibly stylish read and I loved every page.

I mention the subject of the book, because although the kiwi setting appealed, the story itself wasn’t for me. Three young women are on a coming-of-age roadie around small-town New Zealand, with lots of well-thrashed issues about relationships and sexuality and illness and colonial angst. I felt out of place with the characters, perhaps a little voyeuristic, a bit bored with the self-obsession, and the plot took me nowhere new. Didn’t matter. The fact that these conversations aren’t mine did not in the least detract from the beautiful way Porter expresses herself. You might not love the subject of a painting or way it is framed, but the power of the artist can still blow you away.

Porter has been compared to Sally Rooney and I absolutely agree. She has that same cool voice, with a bit more poetry to the writing. I’d love to see this book get good overseas coverage; it’d be nice to get a fresh, young kiwi writer causing an international sensation. Attraction won the Gifkins here, I hope there are other awards in store.

The language is so vivid that I’ve bookmarked this novel in many places that thrilled me. It’s not always the big stuff, often it’s the little unremarked emotions that strike chords. Here’s our protagonist driving through places she recognises from childhood: her mother’s old house; the ice-cream shop; rocks where she cut a foot; site of a missed birthday party. She stops commenting on these memories, belittled by her acerbic friend:

We have peeled away from the sea. This is where the trees come close, huddle in and reach around. They tunnel the car. Driving along these roads feels like tracing the lines of a palm, worn and outspread. I am overwhelmed by something, something stronger than memory, something bone-deep. It warms me and it pains me. I don’t mention that either.

It’s called nostalgia, baby, and she hit me with it. It was my palm she was reading, seeing into the head of my adolescent self. Childhood memories, the strong feelings they evoke, bottled up by the fear of ridicule.

There are great descriptions of landscape. Here’s New Zealand from a car window:

There’s something painted about the hills here, as if they’re not quite real. But get close enough and they reveal their lines to you: wrinkles, creases, the staves of music. Cows dot the ridges like a child’s attempt at drawing crotchets, black and squat.

One phrase is repeated throughout the book, important because this is a story of memories that infuse the present, a woman’s history travelling with her, unseen:

Every time you remember something you’re only remembering the last time you thought of it.

How true. Memories swirl around, they solidify into snapshots when examined and these stick. You can’t go back to the original. It’s like describing a dream. This is true of personal memories, and our unnamed character gives us snapshots of the dominating ex-boyfriend, the two mums, sick grandma, family arguments over ownership of a bach, her attempts to define herself. All of these are presented as flashes of memory, with the strange sharp central focus and soft edges that suggest this might not be entirely how it happened, this is just a re-examination of a previous memory that may have been altered many times.

I think this concept is also true of our collective understanding of history. The only thing we really know of the past are these solidified snapshots: written, oral, archaeological. Altered with a changing perspective. Porter’s character is weighted down with Pākehā guilt, snapshots of colonial injustice a background to her story. Memories surface and are re-examined. They add up to a disturbing pattern of ongoing liability and memories become tinged with shame.

While all this sounds deep and bleak, there are funny bits. Not every memory stays around to haunt forever. Some memories die. The character and her mum try to remember the name of a TV architect, a man who said Levin was the ugliest town in the world. They can’t remember. “Like everything else that happens here, this man’s words had fallen into some parochial hole, too deep for memory, too small for Google.”

Ruby Porter, well done. Wonder what she’s writing next?

Author: Cristina Sanders Blog

Novelist, trail runner, book reviewer and blogger.

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