I have a librarian in New Zealand to thank for directing me towards The New Ships. I like to read books by authors from countries I get to visit so while staying in a town called Nelson, I dropped into the local library to ask for recommendations before going in search of a bookshop.
Unfortunately book prices in New Zealand turned out to be far more expensive than they are in the UK. Instead of walking away from the bookshop with novels by nine authors, I ended up with just this one. I never did get around to reading it during my holiday (but that’s another story).
I wish I’d made a note of the librarian’s name so I could thank her for giving me such a wonderful recommendation.
The New Ships is a layered story about grief and love, about decisions taken and opportunities missed.
It’s narrated by Peter Collie whose wife Moira died a month before the book begins, following a long battle with cancer. Peter has just returned to his job as a partner in a prestigious Wellington law firm but in his fragile state he finds it hard to focus.
Grief stricken and adrift in the world, his life is thrown into further turmoil when he hears that his baby daughter from an earlier relationship might not have died after all. And then his son Aaron goes AWOL when he returns to London after the funeral.
Life in turmoil
Everything that Peter had believed to be true is now thrown into question.
Is the girl seen working in a Greek bar really his daughter Abigail as his friend believes? Did her mother lie about the child’s illness and fake the death certificate?
Why has Aaron run up a huge debt on his credit card and taken out a substantial bank loan? Where is he? Why won’t he talk to his father?
And why did Moira secretly paint a full-frontal nude portrait of Peter and hide it in their cliff-top cottage? What other secrets did she keep from him?
The questions force Peter free to reflect on his relationships and his roles as husband, father and son.
The structure of The New Ships is complex. It jumps around in time — from the 1970s to 2002 — and place. It winds back to Peter’s life on a houseboat in Amsterdam, holidays with Moira and Aaron in Venice, his home in Wellington and the family’s bolt hole on New Zealand’s North Island coast. India and Pakistan make their presence via telephone calls and the Twin Towers attack via the television.
It could so easily be a mess of a narrative but Kate Duigan deftly navigates through the flashbacks and the current day sections of narrative, adding layer upon layer of insight into Peter’s history and his character.
Portrait of grief
It’s a finely observed and very realistic portrait of the complex nature of grief. A feeling of relief that a loved one is no longer in pain but also a feeling of guilt — could Peter have done more to help Moira through her illness? Insisted maybe that she try the experimental drugs?
Outwardly Peter appears to be coping with Moira’s death but at times his heartache threatens to overwhelm him. Without warning he can be found “bawling my eyes out in the car on a side street…” or waking just before dawn fearing he is about to die alone from a heart attack.
Some days he sees Moira so clearly he thinks she’s still there, in the room with him. Other days, he has just a vague sense of her shape, her sound.
I tried to remember how she looked when she was amused by something. I couldn’t quite get the shape of her mouth. The pressure of her head against my collarbone i bed. The high notes of her laughter. I’m not sure I do remember, not exactly.
Peter is a fascinating character. A touch romantic — he’s captivated by a beautifully bound copy of Marc Chagall’s lithographs of Daphnis and Chloe. Caring and considerate towards his family. Methodical and astute in his professional life.
Yet he’s flawed. He makes rash decisions that could cost him his job and shows a callous lack of concern about his former partner and their baby.
A touch melancholy, the book does end with the prospect that Peter’s uncertainties about his life will be resolved.
The New Ships by Kate Duigan: Footnotes
New Zealand born Kate Duignan began her first novel Breakwater as part of her MA in Creative Writing at Victoria University. It was published in 2001. Her second novel The New Ships, published by Victoria University Press in 2018, was shortlisted for the Acorn Foundation Fiction Prize in the 2019 Ockham Book Awards.
She has also been featured in The Penguin Book of Contemporary New Zealand Short Stories (2009) and The Auckland University Press Anthology of New Zealand Literature (2012).
She currently lives in Wellington where she teaches fiction at the International Institute of Modern Letters at Victoria University.
The New Ships was one of the books I read for #20booksofsummer2022. I’m counting it as book 14 in my #22in22 personal project where I am trying to read 22 books from my TBR that I acquired before 2022.