Dying in the First Person
It seems as if 2016 is the year of books about grief and dying. The inevitable mortality of individuals and their loved ones has built-in gravitas and emotional resonance as subject matter, but it also carries an expectation of some kind of originality or exceptionalism – grief is, after all, an experience that everyone has at some point in their lives. Nike Sulway’s novel Dying in the First Person achieves just that: it tackles a deeply affecting story in an original and lyrical way. It’s heartfelt but never sentimental, and it sits with recent novels by Georgia Blain and Kirsten Tranter as a must-read.
Sulway’s protagonist is Samuel Walker, a translator of a very specific language, and the person he’s grieving is his twin brother, Morgan. When the boys were in their teens, there was a rupture in the family involving their father and Morgan was left scarred. He moved away and Samuel has not seen him in more than 20 years. By the time the story starts, Morgan has drowned in a river in the Netherlands. His body is being accompanied back to Queensland by Ana, a woman with whom he was living.
Samuel and Morgan might not have been in practical contact, but they were linked by something rare and resonant. As “very small boys, we had devised codes with which to communicate with each other”, Samuel says.
At first, we used codes we learned from books. Pig Latin and Morse code to begin with, and then the scholar’s Latin our mother taught us, and our father’s beloved Greek. Later, we devised our own languages: pictographs, with eyes for the words ‘look’ and ‘see’, and sticks with six arms for trees.
Over the years, this boys’ game evolved into “… our own dead language, Nahum”, and the boys wrote “… dictionaries and books of grammar, histories of its people, and geographies of the archipelago where the civilisation of Nahum had arisen.” Morgan became something of a hermit who spent his adulthood writing entire books in Nahum to international academic acclaim, and Samuel translated them into English. He was a “… ferryman of narratives, bringing them over from one language to another”. Nahum was studied worldwide, and academics analysed it. (Samuel gave a keynote address at a Society of Linguistic Anthropology conference, against his better judgement.) It’s a language “… both secret and mysterious, a language capable of saying the terrible, heroic things we felt but could not express … a language without nostalgia, without a grammar of regret. A language of men.”
This is a wonderful idea for a story because the loss of a rare speaker of an endangered language carries its own kind of grief, as the range of human expression narrows. It’s also a metaphor for what happens to everyone who loses their only sibling. “Nobody in the world could speak with me now,” Samuel thinks, a sentiment that’s emotionally true. When no one remembers you from the beginning of your life and there are no longer any witnesses to family memories, what happens to your sense of identity? Samuel becomes “… neither a brother nor a translator, but only some voiceless, broken creature. Half a man, with only half a life.”
Ana’s arrival to their small town, though, stirs things up. She brings Morgan’s final manuscript with her and offers Samuel one last connection with his brother, as well as the chance to assume part of his life. It’s a natural step for Samuel, and one he’s been longing for. It calls for a kind of sublimation as well as an embracing of possibility; a merging of the lives of two men who, on some level, are “identical”. The manuscript, though, is unlike Morgan’s others and it takes all of Samuel’s skill to divine its meaning. It represents a shift in Morgan’s thinking, or so Samuel believes at first. He doubts he’s up to it. He thinks:
… no matter how hard I tried to annihilate myself, I would always come between the work and the world. I would always be the one who spoke of it, for it, rather than speaking from within it … My translations would sooner or later be revealed as imperfect mirrors.
There’s a lot of death and dying in this book (Samuel and Morgan’s mother, a bookshop owner, is also dying of cancer) and it’s sad, but not depressing. Morgan is just as much a protagonist as Samuel and the whole novel, and Samuel’s life, vibrates with the energy of his ghost. “The more I age, the younger Morgan becomes,” thinks Samuel, as he remembers “… his hunched shoulders, his dark eyes, his sleeplessness, his wandering, his sense of fear and possibility – to which our work eternally returns”. The boys’ late father is also a vivid shadow. In Sulway’s world, the people we love never truly leave us; Nahum has no word for death. This is a rich and complex world, not a sparse, mourning one.
Sulway, however, is the artist who could not resist a final flourish; she is the fashionista who stands in front of the hall mirror and adds one more piece of jewellery instead of taking one away. At the end of these 231 beautiful pages is an explanatory coda from Ana’s point of view that solves any lingering questions in a sweep and fills in those extraordinary mythical spaces that Morgan left behind. We are also meant to believe that Ana, born and raised in Holland, has a vocabulary, cadence and sensibility indistinguishable from Samuel’s. It’s a self-defeating addition; it pulls away the conjurer’s cloth, revealing the scaffolding behind Morgan’s shadow, and revealing Samuel’s voice to be Sulway’s.
Early on, Samuel admits that, as a child, he felt “... how pointless life was, and how quick and sudden and unimportant a single death was, and how quick death was! How ordinary!” Sulway’s greatest skill is making us feel that this is no ordinary death, and no ordinary story. Regardless of the ending lacking a little restraint, Sulway is a thrilling writer and she’s now on my “must-read” list. LS
Transit Lounge, 304pp, $29.95
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 14, 2016 as "Nike Sulway, Dying in the First Person". Subscribe here.