Last might we launched Kate Duignan's second novel The New Ships at Unity Books in Wellington. Emily Perkins has kindly given permission for us to reproduce her launch speech here.
Tēnā koutou katoa. Kia ora Fergus, Kate, Unity, and all of you for coming tonight to celebrate this wonderful book.
This is a novel that opens in grief. Its narrator, Peter Collie, is in a state so raw as to be on his way to numbness. His wife has recently died. He still functions – he’s used to functioning; he’s middle-aged, white-collar. There are systems around him – a job in a law firm, old friends, a family. But these are not as secure as they might at first seem. At the beginning of the novel he gets a phone call that sets a range of disturbing thoughts in motion. In the wake of his wife’s death, he can no longer ignore questions about his own past, and hers, that take him back to his twenties in Amsterdam, and will carry him forward to family discoveries he has never imagined. The New Ships shows, with a compelling story and great empathy, what happens to a man when the past begins to break in waves around him, when he can’t help but feel the water rising.
The novel shows how time is sloshing all around us, not just relentlessly moving forward. It reminds us that we are shaping our own futures even while we think we’re simply living in the now.We are constantly being formed, The New Ships insists, constantly in the process of becoming, even middle aged white male lawyers. Good news! There is always the chance for understanding and change.
This novel has taken time to write, and a lot of life has been lived by Kate in the writing of it. Three children! A doctorate! God knows what else! I think it is all to the good. The writing is fluid, assured, elegant; it has authority and wisdom; this is a book of depth. It’s a literary novel in the best sense; it shows the inner workings of its narrator with compassion and curiosity; although highly structured and shot through with deep and classical patterns, it grants Peter Collie a sense of possibility. The novel is haunted, in the way our lives are haunted, by legends, literature, music, art and myth, but Peter’s fate is not predestined. In his social position and culturally-constructed outlook he might appear proud, even arrogant, but Kate has written into him the gift of humility. She brings him to life at a point of delicate balance.
So Peter’s wife has died, and as death does, it opens the cave door to other deaths, other disappearances. A baby daughter, long ago. His adult son, somewhere overseas and out of contact now. Global, colossal losses, separations and divisions; the playwright David Hare says that a work of art must have the winds of history blowing through it, and they are in this novel. The New Ships doesn’t suggest that all losses lead to liberation, it’s wiser and more compassionate than that, but it does propose that loss might lead to looking, and that looking might lead to something being found.
The novel moves between Wellington and the wider world, between the past and the present, between grief and hope. In Peter Collie, Kate’s written a brilliant, full-hearted characterization, never faltering in its voice. The revelations are handled with great integrity – the author never condescends to her creation – even while by some deft sleight of hand she manages to show Peter, for instance, unwittingly stumbling into a near miss #metoo situation, or making a mess of things with his angry son, or thinking all problems can be solved by throwing money at them, and the reader sees things about Peter that he can’t see himself – yet.
This is in some ways a novel of self-discovery, but in other, more grace-filled ways, a novel of – not self-erasure, so much as self-effacement. It asks questions about the consequences of sitting on the fence – what happens when ‘good men do nothing’. It might even make a reader wonder about the unseen mistakes, missed opportunities and hidden culpability in their own life. A book is like a ship in some ways. It’s a vessel. It transports you. This is a rich, rewarding, beautifully realized novel, and I ask you to join me in raising a glass to Kate, who will be speaking next and signing copies later once you’ve bought them – and now let’s smash the metaphorical champagne bottle on the prow of The New Ships.
The New Ships is now available for purchase at the best bookshops or through our online bookstore here. $30, p/b.