I’ve been very anxious about tonight, and I’ve been trying to work out why. I’m not usually backward in coming forward about books I love – and I love this book. I find it easy to be enthusiastic, and I feel exceptionally excited about this book and would encourage everyone to read it. But still I’ve been nervous – scared, actually, and I haven’t been able to work out why.
Then, last night, as I started trying to put together some words to welcome this book, I realised the core of my fear. I’m convinced now, more than ever, that whatever I say about this book will say far more about me than I’m willing to share in a public place. I think it might be impossible to talk about Baby without exposing more of ourselves than we normally do. I guess talking about any book reveals something of the talker. But this book reads the reader in a breathtaking way.
No matter how cool or theoretical I try to be, it will soon become very clear whether I am a Cynthia or an Anahera. It will become very clear how, at the depths of me, under all the layers of societal posturing, when I’m left to myself my moral compass is dodgy at best. It will become clear just how animal I am. And this odd implication, this way in which no one who reads this book will get off scot-free, makes it in my estimation the most important New Zealand book since Eleanor Catton’s The Rehearsal.
Toward the end of the book, Gordon (a German tourist and anthropologist, but perhaps most importantly, a man) whispers to Cynthia, ‘You don’t believe in reality . . . you believe in reality TV.’
There’s a lot of amazing things about this book, but Jochems’s control of reality and the way it bleeds into the world we’re standing in makes this book no place for cowards, and also, if you can brave it, one of the best reads you will have in your life. It operates on the reader with some of the instruments of Nell Zink: awkwardness; exposure of the private; and magnificent taut storytelling that drags you through the terror in a way that makes you say ‘Thank you’ and fools you into thinking this is a conventional page turner by operating on your pleasure centres at the same time as your pain. But all the time, it is reading you. Changing you. My therapist would tell me to ‘speak from the I’, but this book makes me reach out into the real world for confirmation of what I’ve read in the world of Baby.
Everyone’s slept a whole night under another body and loved it, eh? Everyone dreams of murder, right? Everyone is sure that person would love them if they could just see them for who they are?
This book tells all our dirty little secrets in a way that braver, butch-er books have failed to do. And there is something of reality TV in this book: not some highfalutin theoretical analysis of how reality TV affects modern discourse, but a pure and clear understanding and love of the act of watching reality TV. The play of it, the seriousness of it, the hugeness of watching other people ‘being’, of the life lived under observation. The fact that no matter how scripted or manufactured it is, reality TV is reality. This is the genius of Jochems. The reader becomes part of the reality TV of this book the moment they turn the first page.
There is something so sharp about how Jochems balances illusion with artifice. The language is seductive. At times the book tricks us into thinking it’s a lyrical, modern novel, so we open up, suspend reality. But then it goes further than we want, leads us into a dark cupboard where we thought we could hide our desires and our fears. It starts to operate as something very different from a conventional novel. After tempting us in, it pushes us out with the unveiling of something we thought belonged to us solely, something we’ve never told anyone, and it’s like it’s in our head, and then we are in our head and very much ‘reading’ rather than absorbed. I have one piece of advice for reading this novel: Stay open. I really can’t say this enough, because despite how I’m playing it, this is not a book that sets out to do us in. The insights into human nature go dark in a way that allows us to see who we really are. Once we’re broken open, implicated in dark love, we are actually and acutely affirmed.
Deep in the heart of the adventure, there’s a moment:
‘The sea is a continual yes. They flush their shit into it and it closes its arms around them perfectly. It’s like their disaster, was a question it didn’t hear. Cynthia marvels at the ease of the water. Their mess disappears into its holding and maintains its same motions. A fly lands on Gordon’s body, his arm. His sleeping mouth opens. He’s been touched like a button.’
The book sees things so clearly – but I don’t want to insinuate that it aims for any higher purpose in this seeing. The book is the purpose of the book. And herein lies the joy of it. Once you buy it, it’s your book. Your thriller, your love story or your dark mirror. The gift Jochems gives readers is that they become the star of this reality show. I’m a Cynthia so I would advocate this kind of nihilistic and narcissistic reading. But I really do think this is what I wanted to say from the start. I don’t really know what Baby will be about for you, but I promise it will be invigorating and transformative. I promise it will push you in the best ways a personal trainer does.
‘After twenty-five minutes with the weights they all lie down in the grass, even Anahera, who shows them how to kick their feet in a very specific way to work their abs. Cynthia closes her eyes and tries to keep moving in the same pattern. It feels right, it feels good. But, ‘No,’ Anahera’s head says, appearing above her. She takes a firm grip of Cynthia’s right foot, and moves it so it’s no longer comfortable. ‘Alright,’ Cynthia says, because her whole body’s been repositioned. Anahera gives her ankle a little rub before moving on, and when Cynthia closes her eyes again there’s sun caught and sparkling inside them.’
I’d like to welcome Baby wholeheartedly into the world and
congratulate Annaleese on a breathtaking and exceptional novel.
Baby by Annaleese Jochems can be purchased through our online bookstore or at the best bookshops. PB, $30.