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False River by Paula Morris – book review

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.

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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.