False River by Paula Morris – book review

by Linda Herrick / 31 January, 2018
RelatedArticlesModule - False River Paula Morris

Paula Morris. Photo/Mike Brooke

A new collection by Paula Morris mixes offbeat pilgrimages with personal tales. 

It’s fair to say that Paula Morris is an obsessive. The Auckland writer claims that title in her latest book, False River, a diverse collection of short stories and essays.

Exhibit A: her essay Rocky Ridge exploring the life of conservative American writer Laura Ingalls Wilder, creator of the Little House children’s classics. Morris, transfixed by the books since childhood, moved to the US in the 1990s and achieved her dream of a “pilgrimage”, travelling to locations described in the series and tracking down Wilder’s many homes over a period of two years. “It got out of hand, as my obsessions often do,” she writes.

Unless you are also a Little House completist, you may be inclined to agree. But Morris moves beyond the Wilder family history, damaged as it was, to minutely observed studies of contemporary rural America, in decline, where all highways seem to lead away from small communities to giant malls.

Morris’s American writings also include a rather odd essay on blues legend Robert Johnson and a quest to find the gravesite of Billy the Kid – only she really knows why – but the most affecting chapters are those that are deeply personal, back home.

In Women, Still Talking Morris reflects on the life of her mother, a woman who “talked too much”, rambling on non-stop for hours, changing course when her thread became confused by inserting the word “however”. But when she got cancer, she lost the ability to talk. As she lay dying, her children tried to lure her out of silence. “I thought it might be a relief for us – the quiet …” writes Morris. “However –.”

Just as moving is Sick Notes, on her father’s death and Morris’s own “delicate” health since childhood. Her account of her father’s last day in Waitakere Hospital is deeply distressing.

Morris and her husband were living in New Orleans in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina hit and they had to evacuate for months before they could return to a wrecked home. City to be Abandoned, taken from a newspaper headline, recalls that frantic yet boring period, with so many stories coming out of the disaster “we were sick of them”. One story stuck, though, of a New Orleans man away on business when Katrina hit. When he returned, he couldn’t find his wife and kids. “She’d taken the opportunity to leave him.”

That story appears as fiction in the first chapter, False River, about a man unhappily reunited with his family some time after his wife had taken the kids and vanished post-Katrina.

Given that Morris says she learnt from her mother to eavesdrop on conversations, you have to wonder who provided the material for the marriage meltdowns threading through the other fictional stories, especially The Third Snow, in which two couples in Rome each reveal relationship cracks during a drunken night.

Morris’s mastery of bickering dialogue is both alarming and terribly funny. It adds yet another enriching dimension to this perceptive, sly and, yes, occasionally obsessive collection.

FALSE RIVER, by Paula Morris (Penguin Random House, $35)

This article was first published in the January 6, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

Latest

Daffodils is a charming, bittersweet and tuneful piece of Kiwiana
103864 2019-03-22 16:20:19Z Movies

Daffodils is a charming, bittersweet and tuneful p…

by Russell Baillie

Aren’t pop musicals meant to be all sweetness and light? No, not if Daffodils is anything to go by.

Read more
Bill Ralston: The keyword is tolerance – even of those we disagree with
103852 2019-03-22 12:37:05Z Social issues

Bill Ralston: The keyword is tolerance – even of t…

by Bill Ralston

Neither evasive nor hate-filled words are needed in the Christchurch mosque-killings aftermath.

Read more
How young New Zealanders are demonstrating their inclusiveness
103832 2019-03-22 09:47:50Z Social issues

How young New Zealanders are demonstrating their i…

by The Listener

Kiwi students provide an inspirational example of how to embrace diversity in the wake of – and even before – the Christchurch attack.

Read more
I never thought I could be in danger over my beliefs – until Friday 15 March
103824 2019-03-22 00:00:00Z Social issues

I never thought I could be in danger over my belie…

by Fatumata Bah

I heard the stories and anecdotes of racism faced by my fellow sisters in hijab, but it was never at the forefront of my mind every day.

Read more
How to enhance your dining experience – with water
103174 2019-03-22 00:00:00Z Dining

How to enhance your dining experience – with water…

by Metro

A stunning dining experience isn’t just about food and wine. Water plays a big part too.

Read more
Facebook won't give up its insidious practices without a fight
103856 2019-03-22 00:00:00Z Tech

Facebook won't give up its insidious practices wit…

by Peter Griffin

Facebook came under fire for its response to the live-streaming of the Christchurch terror attack, but it's digital nudging that's also concerning.

Read more
In photos: The world unites in solidarity with Christchurch
103800 2019-03-21 15:36:46Z World

In photos: The world unites in solidarity with Chr…

by Lauren Buckeridge

Countries around the world have put on a show of solidarity for the victims of the Christchurch terror attack.

Read more
The tangled path to terrorism
103777 2019-03-21 09:59:55Z Psychology

The tangled path to terrorism

by Marc Wilson

The path that leads people to commit atrocities such as that in Christchurch is twisting and unpredictable, but the journey often begins in childhood.

Read more