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Forming the Words

Amy Brown talks with Damien Wilkins about his latest novel, Somebody Loves Us All, and his year writing it in Menton, France.

Paddy Thompson, a successful speech therapist with a newspaper column, ‘Speech Marks’, is troubled by two silences. One is the absence of a phone call; Tony Gorzo, whose son Paddy cured several years earlier, usually leaves a message in response to ‘Speech Marks’. The other is Sam Covenay, a 14-year-old who refuses to speak and resists Paddy’s methods. On top of these minor discouragements, Paddy’s wife, manager of a language school, is constantly working in preparation for an inspection, so provides little consolation. Paddy’s new recreation, cycling, is not the stress-reliever he’d imagined it to be either, as each competitive ride with his colleague Lant becomes a metaphor for their sometimes exhausting friendship. Most distressing, though, is Paddy’s mother, Teresa, who wakes up one morning with a French accent. Teresa’s (now Thérèse’s) illness, Foreign Accent Syndrome (FAS), compels Paddy to communicate with his family more honestly and precisely than ever before.

Last year, having won the New Zealand Post Mansfield Prize, Damien Wilkins went to Menton without any pages or a draft, just a memory of a newspaper clipping. He returned to Wellington eight months later with this novel.

‘When I went to France I had just the vaguest idea of turning the notion of FAS into a story. I didn’t know how to do it or whether it was going to work, so it was a bit of a gamble. Years ago I’d clipped a story from the Evening Post on the case of a woman who’d woken up in South Africa speaking in a Scottish brogue. It was one of those silly newspaper stories that they run in the side column, so you don’t even know if it’s true. I carried that around for probably ten years. So really, the project was written from April to December – very fast for me.’

Having had a foreign accent of his own for the year contributed to Wilkins’ engagement with Teresa’s condition. ‘I think being in France gave the whole inquiry into speech and accent an intensity that it wouldn’t have had in New Zealand. It was useful to be in a culture where communication is mysterious and onerous. So that was a real bonus for me, to write the book in that setting.’

Being in Menton and hosting knowledgeable visitors also aided the writing of the novel. ‘We had a friend staying with us in France, an American who happened to be a neurosurgeon. I asked him about people who present with certain symptoms and what sort of treatment they’d get.’ While this information contributed to Teresa’s scenes in hospital, details specifically about FAS came from elsewhere. ‘There’s a scene in the book where the doctor, having seen Paddy’s mother, goes and Googles it. That’s pretty much it – a little joke about my research. It is one of those things that, if you look into it, is almost an urban myth. There’s disagreement about what it’s caused by and how it can be remedied. It seemed to be a condition that allowed me to make up stuff, rather than say, diabetes or heart disease. Plus it was good potential comedy.’

For its swift production, Wilkins’ latest novel doesn’t feel rushed. As you’d expect from the author of Chemistry and The Fainter, Somebody Loves Us All is written with restraint, wit and keen observation of human interaction. Wilkins’ quiet, controlled style moves at a pace that finds tension in even the most realistically everyday scenes. Paddy passing a parking car on the uphill stretch of his bike ride has all of the mental and physical tension that would be present in the real event.

Talking about this scene, Wilkins says, ‘I want the book to have a feeling of someone drawing back the rubber band, or putting the elastic on in a way which, to change metaphors, the sock stays up when you run rather than slips down. So, I do think about that quite a lot, I don’t think it comes from plot either. It’s to do with some underlying tension, or even a sense of menace. That’s how my novels tend to work. A sense of some sort of impending event that the characters are trying to sidestep or rush towards.’

Having a character new to cycling and negotiating Wellington traffic provides an instant, realistic sense of menace. ‘When I got Paddy on a bike,’ Wilkins says, ‘I was quite pleased. You’ve literally got a kind of dramatic action built into the story if someone buys a bike and goes for a ride. I mean, the stakes aren’t obviously high, but in the kind of books that I write maybe that’s as exciting as daily life can become. I remembered when I wrote that scene that I do quite like writing action scenes, in a funny way.’

In his role as a speech therapist, Paddy has developed an eye and ear for the slightest change in a patient’s manner. This is a perfect character for Wilkins to portray, as both writer and protagonist share this perspicacity when it comes to judging, or depicting, the nuances of human behaviour. It is this quality that would make the novel an absorbing play, which was Wilkins’ original plan for the story.

Small actions, such as Gorzo neglecting to call, Sam Covenay brushing his shoulder against Paddy as he leaves his session, or nervous Teresa repeatedly touching her lips on first arriving at the hospital, are magnified. Their possible meanings are analysed with the obsessive care of a lover. That a writer or a speech therapist would notice such subtle gestures suggests professional curiosity rather than love. However, when the mother of one of Paddy’s cured patients gives him a collection of Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry, and the final line of ‘Filling Station’ – ‘Somebody loves us all’ – impresses him, this level of writerly attention resembles, to Paddy, love.

The first thing that is striking about this line, and now title, is its broad promise, which could be mistaken for a grammatical error. It is not ‘Somebody loves each of us’ – a more plausible proposition – but ‘us all’. Who? Paddy dismisses God and prefers the idea that it’s Bishop herself, with her tender attention to every detail of the filling station, even the ‘hirsute begonia’. It is just the poem that Paddy and Wilkins would appreciate; Bishop’s ability to properly describe the intricate ecosystem of everyday life, often mistaken for the mundane, is a talent that Paddy develops, and which Wilkins demonstrates, throughout the novel.

The knack of identifying a person’s, or character’s, significant traits does not equate to warmth or love; Paddy’s opinions of his brother-inlaw, Paul, and step-daughter, Dora, are frequently biting. But, the overall effect of Wilkins’ sometimes gentle, sometimes vicious characterisations suggests humanity.

In comparing Wilkins’ and Paddy’s responses to Bishop’s poem, it is tempting to find parallels between the role of the speech therapist and the creative writing teacher – each solving problems of expression. This was not consciously intended by Wilkins. Instead, he’d wanted Paddy, with his novels full of sticky notes, to be an ordinary, literate person. ‘He does go to novels for something and that’s part of what I wanted to be unapologetic about in the book – to show a character who is interested in literature but who is not a writer, to show that people outside of literature do have an interest in the stuff.’

Wilkins approaches speech from every angle – literature, accent, puns (often Daddish jokes from Paddy), second-language English speakers, the shapes of words in the mouth, the mental or emotional blocks that cripple speech and the usefulness of silence. Electronic communication, such as Teresa Skyping her cousin and playing Cushion, a fictional online game ‘half-billiards, half a strategy test involving nineteenth century diplomacy’, is another important mode of contact in the novel, inspired by Wilkins’ situation in Menton. ‘We did Skype family and friends a lot. So I think that probably did play into how people stay in touch in the book. All that stuff felt quite fresh to me. It was a new way for us of being overseas. The last time I’d lived overseas was ’97, just on the cusp of email. I remember the magic of sitting in an office, sending an email and getting a reply back instantly. This seems quite quaint now.’

The overt use of current technology, and references to the 2008 general election, anchor the novel in our contemporary setting. This is deliberate. ‘I wanted to not be shy of the contemporaneity of the whole story,’ Wilkins says, ‘to sink the characters quite deeply and naturally into the time, rather than just set it in Nowheresville or whatever the chronological equivalent would be. I like that fiction can be an immediate report.’

Not simply how something is said, but what is said and to whom is such a fundamental ingredient of a novel that it can easily be overlooked. But here, in Paddy’s communication with his two sisters, and in the gradual exposition of their family history, Wilkins accentuates the necessity, and difficulty, of speaking directly. For the characters in the novel, a surfeit of subtlety causes problems. Wilkins says, ‘A question for everyone in the book is, maybe, what are the limits of compromise?’

Paddy’s friend Lant, an educational psychologist, argues to a group of Catholic med students who haven’t yet had the experience of counselling the parents of a terminally ill child, that subtlety is overrated. ‘I’ve been trained and trained for this but I’m sorry, I haven’t thought of an argument yet, a nice subtle piece of thinking that helps with this sort of pain. Frankly, in these circumstances, I find subtlety out of place. I think it’s offensive. I think it reveals a shallow understanding of what it means to be human.’

Subtlety, out of place in Lant’s situation, is frequently at work in the novel. On the danger of subtlety in fiction, Wilkins says, ‘One of the things that I find myself telling fiction writers is to be unafraid of the obvious and unafraid of being understood. To be understood is sometimes quite useful. It’s a value that intelligent young writers are wary of. They equate the obvious with the banal. The obvious can sometimes be as rich as the subtle.’

Somebody Loves Us All, like Wilkins’ previous novels, is a work of literary and emotional subtlety. It communicates a complex situation as comprehensibly as possible. The novel’s final, serendipitous line provides a note of sentimentality. Sentimentality, often descriptive of triteness, is, in this case, right. It is a clear expression of a subtle mood, which perhaps reveals a deep understanding of what it means to be human.

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This article first appeared in the New Zealand Book Council’s Booknotes

Amy Brown is the creative writing editor of the Lumière Reader. Her poetry collection, The Propaganda Poster Girl, was a 2009 finalist for the NZSA Jessie Mackay Best First Book Award. She is currently working on a PhD at the University of Melbourne.