The Year of Falling review: loss, travel and absorbing characters

Wellington writer Janis Freegard has built on her success as a poet with a superb first novel, The Year of Falling.

Wellington writer Janis Freegard has built on her success as a poet with a superb first novel, The Year of Falling.

The Year of Falling

Janis Freegard

Mākaro Press, $35

The Year of Falling by Janis Freegard.

The Year of Falling by Janis Freegard.

Wellington writer Janis Freegard has achieved considerable success as a poet, including the recent collection The Glass Rooster (Auckland University Press), but this doesn't mean she's a novice to fiction. The author of the new novel, The Year of Falling printed by boutique independent publisher, Makaro Press, Freegard is a former winner of the country's top story prize, Katherine Mansfield Award.  The Year of Falling, a book about family relationships set across three countries, is a consummate realisation of its author's prizewinning literary heritage.

At heart, this is a book about sisters, Selina and Smith. Theirs is a relationship which has endured many strains including abandonment at any early age by their mother, various consequent disorders and geographical separation, Selina residing in the Capital, Smith in Takaka. As the novel commences, the legacy of this childhood pain endures. Smith, for instance, undertakes a search to find their errant mother while coping with the terminal illness of her friend and consequent impending guardianship of her son. Selina, meanwhile, embarks upon an all consuming affair with her coworker's famous boyfriend.

It's their dysfunctions and scars realistically envisioned and contextualised that make Selina and Smith intricately woven characters. They're not alone, for The Year of Falling's cast also includes Selina's eccentric landlady Quilla, Smith's dying, free spirited pal, Katie and Ragnar, her thoughtful, imaginative offspring. Such a distinctive, well-drawn posse inevitably layer distinction into this novel, a clear point of difference from typical relationship fiction fare.

This is reinforced by the themes which are evoked. If loss is everywhere in The Year of Falling, in Smith and Selina's desertion, in Selina's continually being hung out to dry by her TV chef beau, in Smith and Ragnar's bereavement, this is finely balanced by discoveries achieved in the face of hardship. A journey from New Zealand to Iceland to find answers to parentage; a difficult mission to return a purloined ring to its owner; an emotional expedition to find answers to Selina's repulsion for dolls: here are topics which bring constructive thematic resolution to the difficulties the characters face.

If this is a book which gives the reader a lot, it also occasionally leaves us wanting more. Its bold plot traverses multiple landscapes, including New Zealand, the UK and Iceland. In transporting readers to these differing environs, there's the possibility of utilising place to imply character contradictions and concerns; but this isn't exploited. These countries, when we see them, are drawn beautifully but a little briefly, leaving us wanting more of and from them, the better to determine the characters' states of mind.

Richly peopled and companioned by an absorbing plot, Janis Freegard's The Year of Falling is a superb first foray into novel writing.   

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