TROUT   [4] 

Book Review
  A Boy & his Uncle 
Anne Kennedy 
ISBN 0-330-36057-4 

During a long midnight phone call to Australia a few days ago I found myself asking a distressed friend in Alice Springs if there weren’t two theories of a proper spiritual life: one emphasizing the salvation of the individual and the other that of the community. “I think you’re wrong,” she said. “There is only individual salvation.” Of course, this was after one-thirty now and I had had a long day, so I couldn’t argue with her, that depressed friend in Alice Springs who wanted to be angry at someone, anyone, in a refined and educated manner. When I awoke the next morning I thought of Anne Kennedy’s A Boy & his Uncle. It more than touches on these two ‘ideas’ and could, with a suitably vague letter, further aggravate my friend into ructions of self-doubt. In fact, I can recommend the latest Kennedy book to anyone who has considered ‘the spiritual life’ and ‘the family’. The way Kennedy seems to present it, the latter fucks you up and the former stitches you back together again. The scars and damage remain, but, in a particularly Catholic manner, one endures.

Set in Wellington, the novel follows introverted Lex who just won’t fit into the world. There’s at least one Smiths song about Lex … the one that goes “no, I’ve never had a job because I’m too shy.” (“You’ve Got Everything Now”). His sister tries too hard to be popular and independent … she, at least, seems typically screwed-up. And the parents aren’t trained in the mysteries of the family. It is very Catholic, very Irish Catholic. And it all happens long before therapy was popular in New Zealand. Eventually some very strange events occur. Love potions are brewed and consumed on two occasions, but with quite different outcomes: one fairy-tale dreamy, the other so dark and real it seems to abolish the idea of childhood.

Threading these events together are Lex’s spiritual reflections on life, his attempts to share 
time with and help the son who has been raised as his nephew.

Its all very complex and on many levels at once … every now and then, I stepped back a little, poured myself a whisky and asked myself where I was being lead. Having become accustomed to, for want of a better term, cottage novels, it’s a big step to read a recent New Zealand novel which requires thought. The need is there on every page of Kennedy’s book. Beautiful quirky aphorisms and scenes which have to be challenged. 

When he gets home he is bursting with all the things he cannot tell her, of all the things he loves, the way he sees things and is affected by them, the way letters and sounds fall from the sky and the way a thought can turn you inside out. There’ll be time for that later, he thinks.
Kennedy’s very good at ‘capturing’ sad life in sentences. Time and time again I mused: “I’ve had the same thought before, but I was too busy with the moment to sit back, write it down, store away, confront it at my leisure.” I was too busy living. Kennedy’s characters spend the greater part of their lives capturing these small moments, extrapolating them, looking for solice in detail. So everyone seems to have a spiritual life in this work. Every character is the object of every other characters assessments, the inquistor of small actions. It could have been a soap opera, but the narrator, Lex in late middle-age, is now a generous if bumbling member of an obscure religious order. He looks back on his life and the lives of the other members of his family through an opaque window, a window which separates the seeker of individual salvation from those who might save him and those he might save.

I can see that this work will not be to everyone’s taste. It’s not hard to read, but it isn’t easy to understand. What is it about? you might wonder. Why is it so sad? Where am I in this work? Where is my salvation in these pages?

Tony Murrow

   © 1998