The unnamed narrator in Ruby Porter‘s Michael Gifkins Prize winning debut novel Attraction can’t seem to get her mind to focus. She and her girlfriend, Ilana, and her best friend, Ashi, are on a road trip to the narrator’s family beach house in New Zealand’s North Island. The trip is one of escape for our protagonist, but as time goes on, it becomes clear that you can’t outrun memories or your own family history.
“Every time you remember something, you’re only remembering the last time you thought of it.” This repeated refrain ties together the different segments of the novel, which function almost like a stream of consciousness. Seemingly unrelated memories and sections of action and dialogue provide the reader with a portrait of our protagonist’s mental state, and reveal her to be somewhat unreliable– like the nature of memory itself– as time goes on.
After the breakdown of her relationship with a man named Nick (who was emotionally abusive and obsessive about cleanliness and rules) our narrator doesn’t really know what to expect from Ilana. Her girlfriend is chaotic and seems un-knowable, and her job in a Wellington strip club causes our protagonist to both fetishise and mistrust her. But, as Ilana and Ashi grow closer and our narrator finds herself becoming jealous, the reader comes to realise that perhaps Ilana isn’t as much of an enigma as the unnamed girlfriend would like her to be.
Like other books about mental and emotional strain that came before it, such as The Bell Jar, Attraction is a highly claustrophobic novel with an extremely unreliable personality at the helm. While our narrator seems to have been the victim of trauma in the early stages of the book, the way she relates to the others around her, including her treatment of Ashi and Nick, reveal a woman who is more complex and more damaged by her family history than she seems aware of. Her growing concern over the absence of her period, and her obsessive calculating about the cost of food (she eats little other than a bag of Vogel’s bread throughout the whole novel, causing this reader to wonder if the absence of her period is related to an eating disorder) provide the reader with some idea of how completely she is losing touch with what is really going on.
It would be easy for a book told in snippets of thought like this one to lose focus, but Attraction is a highly compelling read, and one gets the sense that all of these seemingly disparate puzzle pieces have been painstakingly assembled. Not a word is wasted. Imagery is of the sharpest level. The settings almost take on lives of their own. This is a book that is rooted in place, from the use of Maori language throughout to the acknowledgement of the dark colonial history of the different areas travelled to. In fact, the impact that knowing her family played some part in an atrocity that no one ever speaks about has on our main character is integral to the plot, subtly making the argument that we must take ownership for where we have come from and the things we have done if we are ever going to get past them.
At the centre of it all, the beach house, called the ‘bach’, where the family have come for many years, holds the memories of loved ones who have left, break ups, and the impending breakdown of the family. When the matriarch of the group succumbs to illness (and who wouldn’t relate to the scene in the book when our protagonist searches her grandmother’s house, only to find that her aunt and uncle have labelled all of the valuable items to claim them after she dies), everything comes to a head. It is an apt metaphor that the sewage tank in the garden of the beach house overflows, as if all of the negativity in the family’s past has finally burst forth and demands to be dealt with.
There is so much to love about this angry, meditative novel that reading it is almost an act of catharsis.
FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Ruby Porter’s Attraction is available now through Text Publishing.