From here to maternity

by Louise Wareham / 27 May, 2006

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Relative Strangers is a quiet, unassuming short novel, small in scope yet large in emotion. Dunedin author Emma Neale details the claustrophobic world of domestic yearning, one in which the strands of work, love and passion seem to separate rather than unite. As in an Anita Brookner novel, hers is a neat, circumspect world revolving around conventional lives and heartaches. Neale successfully handles her subjects - particularly the age-old one of adultery - in a way that is fresh and timely.

Three central characters feature in this novel, Neale's fourth: Chloe and Allan, married for eight years, and stranger Colin. Chloe and Allan have recently moved from Wellington to Dunedin, where Allan has a lectureship in the zoology department. Allan is frequently away on business and Chloe is consumed with their infant son Hugo (who, it turns out, she went to some secret lengths to conceive).

In another subplot, Chloe, who was adopted at birth, has taken steps to find her birth parents. Then, with Allan away yet again - and at Christmastime - she gets unexpected news. Distressed and lonely, she shows up at Colin's house, where her birth father is once said to have lived.

This may be an odd way to get two people together, but it is the device that drives the novel. Colin offers tea and sympathy. Chloe breastfeeds and revelations begin to flow.

Focused as this novel is so centrally on the interior lives on its characters, it would be an excellent play - perhaps a better play than a novel. With little outside description or action, it strengths lie in its characters' shared revelations and articulation of emotion.

Neale's conclusions about marriage, love and motherhood are not particularly startling nor her characters exceptional. But they are real and likely to be familiar to most. This is particularly true of Chloe. The men, unfortunately, are not quite as well drawn. Like many authors, Neale uses a male voice that tries to sound real by being tough-guy and colloquial. There is an overabundance of emotionally stunted phrases and sentiments such as "way weird", "fan-crapping-tastic", "doing his head in", "whacko" and, my favourite, "Col had just mortgaged himself to the tits".

But when in Chloe's voice, Neale controls both her story and difficult emotions beautifully. Although sometimes her characters might be a little too controlled, too good. Even Colin, when he drops his tough-guy act, can be a little nauseating in his goodness. He is just overwhelmed by the power of Chloe's mothering, the allure of the baby that husband Allan has mostly ignored. And reflecting on his own hapless father, he is earnest and wise: "He somehow always tried to do the right thing by me. What he thought was the best. And I never really had the chance to give him credit for that."

At least Allan is ultimately allowed to show some not-so-nice colours, explaining away mistakes in his marriage with the feeble bleat that it's been hard for him, too: "This isn't easy for me, either ... Being in the wrong life. It's been pissing hard on

me too."

If none of the revelations in this novel are earth-shattering, they are at least believable and comforting. Neale reminds all mothers of what matters most: motherhood. "The world seemed such a fragile place, each life in it as temporary and tenuous as a bead of water suspended on a thread of air. She felt swamped by vertigo then, but steadied herself by imagining how Mums might respond to that image of lives barely airborne, fairly falling."

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