It is New Zealand in the 1950s. A child is born to an unmarried woman with addiction problems, who soon afterwards disappears. The child she leaves behind is a fish, its “gills vulgarly present”, its stink attracting gulls. The child is named after his grandfather, Colin Montgomery, though the narrator – the child’s young uncle, only a boy himself – calls him the Fish. The Fish is brought up by his grandparents, and they protect him from the local community as he grows up to attend school and even work at the family business. For the family he remains a mystery, “leaving us to assemble the meaning of what he is”.
This is the basic plot of Lloyd Jones’s new novel The Fish, which presents the reader with the similar task of decoding its titular character. While the abject fishiness of the child is always apparent, his absurdity – as well as his resonance with other literary characters, such as the Christological Fish in Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet or the colonial-era seal-child of Tom Gilling’s The Sooterkin – invites an allegorical reading. The meaning of the allegory, though, remains elusive.
Is The Fish a story about difference, extending on the interests of Jones’s previous novel, The Cage, which was also allegorical? Or is it autobiographical? The epigraph – “When a writer is born into a family, the family is finished” by Czesław Miłosz – suggests it might be. Indeed, The Fish reprises the story of abandoned children or absent parents that features in Jones’s memoir A History of Silence. Here the narrator’s two sisters surrender, in different ways, children conceived outside marriage. The sisters also, in different ways, disappear.
Like Jones’s memoir, which referenced the 2011 Christchurch earthquake in unearthing buried trauma, this novel also engages with a disaster in New Zealand’s history: the sinking of The Wahine in a 1968 cyclone. Wahine is the Māori word for woman, and the shipwreck resonates mysteriously alongside this novel’s concern with “shipwrecked” women. Drowning is also represented in literal and poetic ways to represent seen and unseen tragedies.
While I found the novel’s commitment to enigma refreshing, its plot and pacing lack the slickness of his Booker-shortlisted novel Mister Pip. The drawn-out ending also reminds me of that earlier novel’s weakness. But one expects beautiful prose from Jones, and he does not disappoint. The writing about the shipwreck is so breathtaking that it is worth reading the novel for the enigma of Jones’s writing talent alone.
Text Publishing, 272pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 2, 2022 as "The Fish, Lloyd Jones".
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