Ockham Shortlist 2019: ‘All This by Chance’ by Vincent O’Sullivan
Below is an excerpt from the novel All This by Chance by Vincent O’Sullivan, which is shortlisted for this year’s Acorn Foundation Fiction Prize at the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards.
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About the writer:
Vincent O’Sullivan is the author of two previous novels — Let the River Stand, which won the 1994 Montana NZ Book Award for fiction, and Believers to the Bright Coast, which was shortlisted for the 2001 Tasmania Pacific Region Prize — and many plays and collections of short stories and poems. His most recent collection of short fiction is The Families. His work has been much awarded and he was made a Distinguished Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit in the 2000 Queen’s birthday honours. Vincent O’Sullivan was the New Zealand poet laureate 2013–2015. He lives in Dunedin.
About the book:
Esther’s grandparents first meet at a church dance in London in 1947. Stephen, a shy young Kiwi, has left to practise pharmacy on the other side of the world. Eva has grown up English, with no memory of the Jewish family who sent their little girl to safety. When the couple emigrate, the peace they seek in New Zealand cannot overcome the past they have left behind.
Following the lives of Eva, her daughter Lisa and her granddaughter Esther, All This by Chance is a moving multigenerational family saga about the legacy of the Holocaust and the burden of secrets never shared, by one of New Zealand’s finest writers.
‘In part All This By Chance tells us much about how different generations of young New Zealanders have interpreted the big world called Overseas. Stephen in the 1940s, Lisa in the 1960s and a granddaughter in the 2000s react to Europe in very different ways.
More essential, though, is what the novel says about the hold that the past has over us, how the past shapes us whether we like it or not, and how lethal it can be to pretend uncomfortable parts of the past never happened. This novel is about time, remembrance and the persistence of family traits, even when they have been ignored.
And it is at least possible that the title “All This By Chance” is ironical. Various characters in the novel hold firm religious beliefs, which do not see blind chance as shaping us, while others have an agnostic looseness that does not speculate on such matters. O’Sullivan’s prose is densely detailed, picking up fine nuances in the culture of each age and generation. It is as outstanding a novel as has been produced in this country in the last 10 years.’
(From a review by Nicolas Reid on Stuff.co.nz, March 2018)
Through the night there is rain that makes her think again of back home, its soft beating against the window in her room, the runnels of water on the pane when she draws back the curtain and the street light level with her wobbles behind the moving glass. In the morning the rain is light, almost a kind of veiling Englishness. Then later the sky clears, the heat is sudden, the streets steam: it is summer again of the kind that tourists travel for.
……..Esther checks her maps, the notes she carries in her folder, and in twenty minutes she has crossed Rynek and the smaller square that leads from it with banks of flowers outside shops, restaurants as everywhere, groups of young people here for a youth conference assembling under flags. She takes a narrow alley and is away from the tourist centre. She follows a broad road and crosses tramlines, finds other names she checks on her maps, is struck by the occasional ornate and grimed old commercial buildings, among the drab post-war office blocks, much as they might be in any city. Soon she stands before a high tiled building in quiet curving Włodkowica Street. She recognises it from the photograph in her guidebook. She passes through a short vaulted archway and finds herself in a large courtyard, the windows of several storeys rising on three sides, and facing her on the fourth, the façade of the synagogue, the tall flat white columns against painted stone, classical Greek detail flowering at their tops. She feels a quick stab of disappointment. There is nothing obviously religious, Jewish, about the building she looks at. It is like a concert hall, what she has waited to see.
……..The White Stork, that oddest of names for a synagogue, a long time back the name of a drinking house that stood there first, so there is no surprise in that. A pub, a place to stay, nothing to do with them, until the families of whom her own must have been one were rich enough to buy the land, to build in a style that showed their wealth, their education, their being like anyone else apart from this, apart from their wanting their God to have a place which no one would doubt belonged to them. To decorate it with fine galleries, with the white-and-gold patterns and designs and elegance that made it worthy of Him, and themselves worthy of it. This was the nineteenth century, this was Germany, the people she came from were part of what sustained the fineness of both. This was not a place where peasants, where mutterers in Yiddish or local dialects came to declare descent, but an educated people were proud to be seen. She had heard as much for years from David and now saw why his version was another world. But the building is a shell of what it may have been, expanses of raw distempered walls as she enters its big spaces, the derelict rooms, where workmen seem in the process of attempting to bring them back from its general sense of neglect, loss, decay. The rough concrete tubs, the tangle of pipes, as she walks down to the female baths. Back on ground level she makes out the dim high gallery where the women would have sat, the glaring emptiness of the windows whose patterned glass they would have faced. But the stairs she might take up to it are closed off with wooden barriers. The dull reality that this is what the past must first journey through, before it is retrieved. And her accepting too as she reads a summary account of where she stands, the further scouring disappointment that her family, those at least that she knows the names for, would not have attended services here in any case but have gone to the larger Reformed synagogue streets away, so grand and handsome, so certain and established, destroyed the night of the other Jewish fires across the country they once were part of. Yet to say so much as ‘was’ is surely to say it in the present: the past is here or not at all.
……..‘They were significant people.’ How she remembered her father saying that. And the quick snap of her irritation as a teenager, her demanding why he had to drag his bourgeois snobbery even into this, as if it mattered a damn whether a great-uncle as he claimed was a famous scholar? She had shouted what difference would it make if he couldn’t read a word or was fucking Einstein? When they came to get him? When he died wherever it was they decided he would die? The hurt in David’s eyes as he took in what she said, and the words she chose to say it, and his own shame, the shame finally of everything. But telling her only, ‘You disappoint me, Esther.’ And the worst then she could think of to hurl to him, that he must disappoint them, did he ever think of that?
……..She walks out again into the open air, to the walls rising on three sides of her, the lift of the synagogue across from where she stands. It no longer bothers her, the confusion of one imagined building in mind, the reality of another in front of her. Her accepting, she thinks, that is what must define me. The mess of it all is what I am. To be here now, in the square of the courtyard that struck her as so like the bottom of a well, rising several storeys to that other square of now sharp blue sky. Where they had been instructed to assemble, those who in absurd optimism, in incomprehension, still remained in the city to be rounded up. They most certainly were here for that. To stand for further instructions and watch the faces of the those they had known for a lifetime, their standing against the ones who mattered to them most, the comforted, the comforting, as they waited. For orders. How that word mines beneath all others, hollows the pit where everything in its implacable force descends. She looks at the overlap of one cobblestone against another, the window ledges exactly as they must have seen them, the rise of the flat pillars against the painted wall. They, the family, their hands holding, touching, comforting, she supposes. Or perhaps not. She had read how the older ones at times like this, the devout, the ones with certainty of more than fear, already would be moving their lips, speaking the words louder even than that, and the guards amused at their presumption, the joke that prayer might slow so much as a child’s shuffle on the march that would soon begin to the rail lines and the station. Once the timetables were set in stone. Esther’s own lips move as she says the names. Chaim. Lisabet. Sarah. Hannah. Ephraim. Sol. She closes her eyes, leans her head back against the wall. Like saying a line of poetry. A prayer. She says them over again. There is nothing more she can do. The closest she will be with them.
© Vincent O’Sullivan, 2018, published in All This by Chance, Victoria University Press.