Friday 20 May 2022


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The Fish by Lloyd Jones  {Reviewed by STELLA}
Lloyd Jones's latest novel, firmly set in 1960s New Zealand, turns the tables on our expectations. The Fish is a story of a writer, and a tale of a family fraught with shame, tragedy and love. When the teenage daughter, always referred to as The Fish’s Mother, gives birth to ‘Fish’ she is simultaneously both protected and rejected by her family, and by extension, her child also. That this baby is viewed as different — he has googly eyes, a lopsided wide gob, smells strongly and sometimes has gills — is more a reflection of the family’s shame or discomfort with the situation they find themselves in rather than the child in and of itself. Although you do, through the eyes of his uncle (the narrator of this story), get the district impression of an oddity — Fish is not like other children and possibly not like other humans. This otherness lies at the heart of the novel (what happens when you take a fish out of water, or, as a writer, you are both inside and outside of lived family experience?), and the family’s complex responses to Fish, and interactions with each other. Both daughters are wayward: Clara, the eldest, escapes to Sydney, where she works in ‘modelling’ or as she later puts it, the "professional girl-friending" business. The Fish’s Mother is promiscuous and drug-addicted, often found on the ships. Uncle, our narrator, is the youngest of this trio of siblings and, only nine when Clara leaves home and The Fish arrives on the scene, is both witness and victim of the complex family narrative. Anyone who has grown up in a family with a challenging sibling will instantly recognise the conflicting emotions that arise in such family dynamics, moving in a forever-cycle of guilt, blame and shame as well as love and care. Jones hints at incest, but this is ambiguous. Mrs Montgomery’s insistence at naming Fish ‘Colin Montgomery’ after her husband may be her finger-pointing, and her shoplifting, drinking and later dementia may indicate her various forms of escape from the unhappy household. Water — the sea specifically — plays a major character role. As a gentle loving embrace — the house and the caravan (a central refuge, as well as a symbol of heartache, for all the family members at different times in their lives) on the coast, the summers at the beach, the freedom of the ocean, and Fish’s great ability to stay underwater for significant periods of time. And in comparison an angry force, unforgiving and prepared to wreak havoc — the sea (or the ships) take the Fish’s Mother away, washes through Colin Montgomery senior as his heart fails, and a storm, specifically the one that sank the Wahine, swallows its victims — some are spat out, but others are taken to its depths. Lloyd Jones writes with both careful silences — much is unsaid or only hinted at — and descriptive clarity — the Wahine storm is vivid, while the building tempo of 1960s society, piece by piece, reaches a crescendo, its own storm wave. Littered with oblique references to mythology, sea lore, and with metaphoric resonance, The Fish is a thought-provoking novel unafraid, like its protagonist, to travel against the tide while still adhering to what makes a tale compassionate — humanity in all its glory and squall.

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