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The New Ships by Kate Duigan – book review

Kate Duignan: expansive, vividly descriptive writing. Photo/Robert Cross/Supplied

The shaky life of a Wellington lawyer makes for a solid sophomore novel.

Money, and plenty of it, is essential for a stable life, muses Peter Collie, the lawyer-narrator in Wellington writer Kate Duignan’s richly rewarding new novel The New Ships.

A good income soothes “late-night anxiety attacks” but his dark past always intrudes. Three decades earlier, Collie, trying to make a fast buck while living with a bunch of hippies on a boat in Amsterdam, created a “catastrophe”.

Since then, his focus has been entirely on building a prestigious legal career. Yet, at the opening of the book, in 2001, he is wobbling: his wife, Moira, has just died of cancer, and he’s under pressure to return to his job at a reputable law firm in Wellington.

It is October, just after the 9/11 attacks, and the jittery times reflect his mood. At 49, Collie is prone to recklessness, blame-shifting and pomposity, all of which is deliciously portrayed by Duignan.

But he is also an interesting man, who studied Greek classics at school. The book’s title is taken from TS Eliot’s poem Marina, which refers to “the hope, the new ships” as it reflects on the anguish of paternal love and the lost daughter of Shakespeare’s Pericles.

Collie had a daughter, Abigail, born when he was in Amsterdam. She died when she was six weeks old; her French mother Genevieve suffered post-natal depression.

One of Collie’s most prized possessions also harks back to Amsterdam: a huge golden book, illustrated by Chagall, of the second-century Greek classic Daphnis and Chloe, set on the island of Lesbos, which also concerns lost babies.

For some time, Collie has been unable to put questions about Abigail’s death out of his mind. Since his final meeting 11 years ago with Genevieve, who has since died, he’s been building “complicated, consoling fantasies” about his daughter.

Since his marriage to Moira, there has always been some mystery attached to their son, Aaron, now aged 25, and a rising acting star in London. Aaron, who has been back in Wellington for his mother’s last days, is leaving. But father and son have a tiff at the airport and Aaron goes off the radar.

It’s only later that Duignan divulges that Moira was pregnant when she met Collie, and that Aaron’s skin is dark. Moira’s vague tale about the father’s identity leads him to conclude that she must have been “vacuously drunk” when she conceived. Wait until he finds out the truth.

This is Duignan’s second novel, after her highly praised 2001 debut Breakwater. The New Ships is more expansive in scope, with her vivid descriptive writing moving assuredly from Wellington to Amsterdam, Lyon and Lesbos.

But it’s Collie’s interior monologue that really powers the often comedic pace: entering the law firm’s boardroom, he feels “a tiny shriek-rattle of anxiety rising off the skulls of my colleagues”; “where’s the payback?” with kids; “I am not and never have been keen on self-exposure of any kind.”

But in the end, as he is forced to become more self-aware, Collie’s life sails towards “the hope, the new ships”. It’s a really enthralling and perceptive read.

THE NEW SHIPS, by Kate Duignan (Victoria University Press, $30)

This article was first published in the May 26, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.