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Can You Tolerate This? by Ashleigh Young - book review

Ashleigh Young: disarming poignancy. Photo/Russell Kleyn

A collection of personal essays is charged with a “new recklessness”.

In the epigraph to “The Te Kuiti Underground”, one of the 21 personal essays in Can You Tolerate This?, Wellington poet, tutor and blogger Ashleigh Young quotes the American writer Russell Hoban: “It seems to me the realest reality lives somewhere beyond the edge of human vision.” Hoban went on to say, “I don’t know that it can ever be seen, but I’ll keep looking.”

In this collection, Young scours similar territory, exposing small fragments of experience from the periphery of her own autobiography. The result is an exceptional series of stories and observations; an unevenly lit map of her personal history told with clarity, brevity and a disarming poignancy. In her childhood town of Te Kuiti, we find her walking down View Rd, hand in hand with Paul McCartney, then Tom Petty, Billy Corgan, Beck; tagging along to a gig with her older brothers; laying the ailing family dog (never named) on the couch. Then she is in Wellington, running in the dark, cycling in the rain, peering into her neighbour’s yard from a trampoline, lying in the arms of her lover, grateful “to be left alone at the same time as being held”.

These acts of remembering and retelling glance off a troubled youth: eating issues, body image, family disharmony hidden under an inadequately feigned forgetfulness. And shyness: “I had always left the talking to my brothers. They were the ones with the driver’s licences. I sat in the back seat and never learned to drive myself.”

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But Young avoids the pitfalls of squeamish self-analysis, self-pity or confession. At one point she quotes her writing tutor: “Write your way towards an understanding.” Such understanding is never overt. There are no grand authorial statements or conclusions, no points of arrival. Rather we have a series of partial but perfectly framed impressions of those who flicker across these pages: her mother, writing her memoir by lamplight in the caravan; her father at the controls of a Cherokee; her brother, JP, in his worryingly outmoded red bomber jacket: “Neither fashion nor irony had circled back far enough to reach that jacket.” Any deeper insight is blocked by a habitual layer of armoury: her counsellor, cocooned in high-collared black clothes, necessary self-defence “against the eyes of the women, mostly young, whom she treats every day”; the rings and beads of sweat, a “kind of chain mail”, in the hot yoga class; the impenetrable walls of hikikomori, a Japanese term for those usually young people who retreat from social life into their homes or rooms; even young Philadelphian Harry Eastlack, whose body continued to ossify until he died aged 39, his skeleton still erect within its glass case without the usual pins and ties.

Such observances are exquisitely told (she thanks her writing class for giving her a confidence and “a new recklessness”). Her mother’s lamp “doubled over like something in pain”; passengers on a long-distance flight, lopsided like “crushed cans”; a freshly mown cemetery, “headstones bolting it into place”; swimming in the Pelorus River, “the audacity of the water to be so cold” – curious flashes of the “realest reality” on the far edge of understanding. Hopefully she will keep looking.

CAN YOU TOLERATE THIS?, by Ashleigh Young (Victoria University Press, $30).

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