Launch speech of The Ice Shelf

The Ice Shelf was launched at The Women's Bookshop in Auckland on Tuesday 17 October by Richard von Sturmer who has kindly given permission for us to reproduce his speech here.

It’s my honour to launch Anne Kennedy’s wonderful new novel, The Ice Shelf. I’ve followed and enjoyed Anne’s work since her first book, 100 Traditional Smiles, was published in 1988.

The Ice Shelf is a riveting read. When I received my copy in the mail a few weeks ago I quickly read about two thirds of the book. Then I stopped. It’s a strange, compelling tale; a journey of self-discovery, or perhaps of self-deception. To do it justice I felt that I had to go on my own journey. Wellington – where the novel is set – was too far away, so I decided to drive to Kihikihi, a small town five kilometres south of Te Awamutu. There I paid my respects at the grave of Rewi Maniapoto, an important Maori leader who fought in the Great War for New Zealand. I then visited the nearby Space Centre, which has many displays of space memorabilia, including Russian cosmonaut space suits. Finally I spent the night at the Cicada Motel and read the last third of The Ice Shelf. Kihikihi is Maori for cicada. There were no sounds of cicadas or crickets. It was a cold night, which seemed appropriate.

Concentrating on the book, I have to mention the striking cover by Ant Sang. It depicts the narrator and writer, Janice, during her epic journey around the streets of Wellington on a wet and windy night, transporting her beloved fridge with her. One point of reference in the book is Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein. If a film were to be made of The Ice Shelf, it would have to be in black-and-white. Part horror film and part film noir. And there are references to films throughout the novel. Sam Neil’s Cinema of Unease is mentioned on many occasions; a touchstone for the dark and brooding nature of the New Zealand psyche, which is personified by Janice’s taciturn ex-partner, Miles. Their falling out of love gives Janice her impetus to write The Ice Shelf. Janice also has conversations about French New Wave cinema with a young man at her local liquor store. You could have a mini French film festival, watching the films they discuss: Celine and Julie Go Boating, 4 Aventures de Reinette et Mirabelle, A Bout de Souffle. . .

The Ice Shelf, I believe, is the only novel to have a fridge as one of its main characters. The green, replica “vintage” fridge accompanies Janice throughout the book. The “frigidness” or “frigosity” of the fridge grows and grows as the novel progresses. In the end, after I had finished reading The Ice Shelf, I felt compelled to watch, when I got home from Kihikihi and perhaps as a sort of exorcism, the final scene of Michelangelo Antonioni’s much maligned but marvellous Zabriskie Point. The film is an exploration of youth culture in the States at the end of the 1960s with young people at war with the police and the authorities. In this final scene Diana, a young woman, watches her boss’s luxury house explode in the Arizona desert. The television explodes in slow motion, the expensive stereo system explodes in slow motion, and then . . . a fridge is hurled into the blue sky and explodes in slow motion, showering its contents across the screen. I watched Zabriskie Point when I sixteen with my best friend, John Schmidt, at the Gaiety Theatre in Takapuna. It was one of my most memorable film experiences, made all the more so because there was a steady exodus from the cinema by middle-aged and elderly patrons during the final, climatic scene. In contrast, John and I remained seated, wide-eyed and completely spellbound. Anyway, Anne, you may, or may not, want to check out Zabriskie Point.

Back to The Ice Shelf. When you begin to read the novel you quickly realize that the thirty something Janice is not a reliable narrator. In fact, she’s not that likable. In fact, she could be a monster – and she’s referred to as a monster several times in the novel, which ties in with the Frankenstein theme. And yet you can’t help but side with Janice in all the adversities she encounters – that’s the power of the writing. The book could be read as a tragedy – at the very least a cautionary tale about the dangers of self-editing as Janice goes about discarding page after page of her manuscript. But really it’s a comedy, a dark, masterful comedy. Its targets include small literary presses – Janice’s first book, Utter and Terrible Destruction is published by Chook Books; literacy grants – Janice receives the Arts New Zealand Antarctic Residency; creative writing classes and their pompous tutors, and book clubs. The only aspect of the literary world that doesn’t get sent up, and perhaps we’ve all dodged a bullet here, is the book launch.

And as part of this launch, I’d like to read two passages from a section of the novel – there are no chapters – where the twelve-year-old Janice ends up at the commune Hoki Aroha, near Taihape, where her estranged father, Harry, lives with his new partner and family. The scene is at the end of a communal meal (page 111).

Thank you, Anne, for writing The Ice Shelf. It can now break away from you and float into the world. May it melt into the imaginations of many, many readers.