Just landed in store is New Zealand author Carl Nixon’s new book The Virgin and the Whale (Vintage New Zealand) which I was lucky enough to get an advance copy of – I have been waiting and waiting for it to be available so I could tell you all about it as I thought it was such a good read.
The book starts with Nixon (an award-winning short story writer, novelist and playwright) explaining that he was contacted by a man who had a remarkable true story to tell him, that Nixon might like to turn into a novel. Nixon’s heart sinks. The man, about 90 years old, tells him about his mother, who fell in love with a man who had no memory – there are letters and part of a children’s story to see, and more family stories to tell. Nixon’s heart leaps.
Nixon has crafted a rather lovely, lyrical and amazing novel from these beginnings, with a sparkling imaginative tale told to a child secreted within the novel, like the words running through a stick of candy.
Elizabeth is a nurse in Mansfield (read Christchurch) in 1919. She has a four-year old son and a husband who has not returned from the war in Europe, although he is, at this stage, still ‘only’ missing in action. Elizabeth tells her son her invented tale of the Balloonist to try to connect him with his father. Because of her experience nursing war casualties, Elizabeth is asked to nurse a man who has returned to Mansfield, with no memories of anything or anyone previous to the head injury he sustained on the battlefield 18 months before.
The story is lovely and surprising, and Nixon has woven it cleverly – it is hard to tell what is fiction and what really happened. I hesitate to use the word but it is sentimental: tender and sad and nostalgic but in a wonderfully good way, not in the damning-with-faint-praise way usually meant when using that word when applied to the arts. Elizabeth’s child and parents are nicely sketched in and the descriptions of 1919 Christchurch resonate when you think of the earthquake broken city of the last couple of years. The broken and damaged men whom Elizabeth nursed and nurses embody the brutal consequences of war, while the story of the Balloonist hints that not everything is destroyed, even if the physical is, and that some things are worth dying for.
I particularly liked the parts where Nixon continues with the stepping outside the narrative approach he takes in the first chapter and occasionally addresses the reader about the nature of story, of identity and of family and of what our expectations are of each and what happens when those expectations are confounded.
Read it and weep, but you’ll laugh too… and then want other people to read it.