Baby by Annaleese Jochems – book review

by Linda Herrick / 22 September, 2017

Annaleese Jochems.

Annaleese Jochems’ classy debut novel is a creepy story of worse things happening at sea.

Annaleese Jochems tricked me at the start of her first novel, Baby, because the writing seemed so naive. But I was the dim one: the narrative is coming from Cynthia, a self-absorbed, infantile 21-year-old who is quite possibly a psychopath.

The book opens with an outdoors exercise class, where Cynthia is puffing away while perving at instructor Anahera’s body, homing in on her singlet, “one of those sophisticated ones that button up between the legs”.

Cynthia, knocked out by the effort of planking, hurls herself on to the lawn and nibbles some grass, triggered by her proximity to Anahera. “She feels herself on the cusp of some enormous event of infinite meaning.” Yes, that’s the way she thinks, meaningless faux-language absorbed from a diet of reality TV.

In reality, Cynthia doesn’t know how to interact normally. She’s in a vortex of instant judgments, passive-aggressive behaviour, compulsive lying and quite misplaced narcissism.

We don’t learn much about her back story, except that she lives alone in Auckland with her rich, absentee father and her french bulldog, Snot-head, which she professes to love.

Completely inappropriately, but typically, she tells Anahera she has money and makes her an offer: leave “this dumphole city” with her. Anahera declines, but not for long – it quickly transpires she is the queen of opportunism.

Cynthia empties most of her father’s cash from his online account and the pair, plus Snot-head, head north. But Cynthia’s would-be lover doesn’t like Snot-head.

The journey comes to a head in Paihia, where they buy a small boat, Baby, to create their new home. Two women and a dog on a boat gets claustrophobic very quickly, and the money runs out.

From here on, everyone they encounter is weighed up in terms of how much cash they can extract from them, including a teenage boy who pays them to take him to a small island, and a German tourist called Gordon, who they meet on that island. Suddenly, it’s two women plus Gordon – whose German accent slips from time to time – on the boat.

With Gordon’s arrival, the intimacy between Cynthia and Anahera, barely fulfilled, is charged with suspicion and paranoia. In parallel, the boat becomes a damp, stinking trash can, where bed space – and bed companions – are contested on a daily basis.

Jochems is adept at conveying Cynthia’s jangly moods: the unfiltered sulks and rages, the whiny neediness, the phoney sweetness. Jam sandwiches are her solace.

Inevitably, Baby builds in tense violence – with one hilarious interlude – to a dark, surreal finale.

Jochems, 23, who grew up in rural Northland, wrote this book with the assistance of the 2016 Adam Foundation Prize from the International Institute of Modern Letters. Originally called

And Lower, Baby’s cast offers not a single likeable character. But in Cynthia, she has crafted a memorable monster. Creepy and subversive, Baby is a classy debut. So, don’t let first impressions fool you.

BABY, by Annaleese Jochems (VUP, $30)

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