The New Ships—book review

The New Ships, by Kate Duignan

Stripped bare, this is a book a story about a man stripped bare.

Peter is confronted by a portrait painted by his wife. It’s a naked man, sitting on a chair. Nothing else. He is not even sure it is him. He wife has died of cancer, Peter is in mourning and he finds the painting in a shed at their Castlepoint bach, a exposed place he wants to sell. Even the bach is not what he thought; the field he believed was his actually belongs to a neighbour.

This is a mid-life crisis story if ever there was one. Every concept Peter uses to define himself is stripped away on the turning point of his wife’s death.

They were smug marrieds. Lawyer/painter, teenage son, house in the burbs and bach at the coast. Elderly parents a drive away. Peter looks back on youthful adventures abroad and drops references to Plato’s Republic and Socrates’ story of Er, Orpheus, Chagall’s paintings of Daphnis and Chloé (hopefully, dear reader, you are better educated than me).

But these things that define him turn out to be ephemeral, after all. He knows his son is not his, but didn’t know, like the bach, he also belonged to a neighbour. He is put on gardening leave from work and realises that his is no longer a lawyer. Long ago, as a boho youth, he fathered a child on a houseboat in Amsterdam and we follow as this hapless story of loss until that, also, changes with a phone call from an old friend in Greece. He is left naked, like the painting. Just a man, stripped.

There are dozens of threads in the tapestry that is Peter and we pull at one after another, gradually unravelling the man. The story ricochets around the inside of Peter’s head from Amsterdam to Wellington, London and India, Pakistan, Wanganui, Greece. We’re in the middle of something that is about to make sense and then there’s an aside about sailing, and he buys a boat. There is information about his son about to be revealed and we are side-swiped by a boyfriend of a girl at work who is freedom fighting, not very effectively, in Wellington harbour. There’s the girl herself, who calls him out and then needs to be forgiven but she walks away in a sparkly dress. The twin towers fall, Governor Grey seizes Te Rauparaha. I don’t know why we need to know that, but Peter diverts us from the driving thread of the story: where is his son? All through the book are actions and consequences.

He leaves a baby exposed on a metaphoric hillside. What did he think will happen?

I felt deeply for Peter, but never liked him. It seemed to take his wife’s death to tell him to take a look at himself, decide what sort of a man he was and realise how his actions affected others. Actions and consequences, mate. The biggest life regret he acknowledges prior to his wife’s death seems to be setting a sail upside-down in a boat race. That haunted him for years. Then the rest all comes crashing in on him. Poor bloke.

The thing about this book is, I think I know this man. If I went to a party and someone said — that’s Peter — I’d know him. I’d recognise the way he talked, gave the expected smiles, half-engaged with people while keeping himself tucked away, terrified that someone would rip his clothes off and leave him exposed.

I don’t think the cover works. It would have been brave to have the painting. The image of the man stripped bare is so stark and clear in my head I wondered if this was inspired by a real work of art so I googled “painting of naked man on a white chair.”

Wouldn’t recommend you do that.

Author: Cristina Sanders Blog

Novelist, trail runner, book reviewer and blogger.

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