My brother was seven minutes older than me; seven minutes after he died, I passed into a future he had refused. Nobody in the world could speak with me now. Nobody knew those languages, those histories, like we did. I waited for someone to tell me what I should say, what I should do with what was left of my life now that he was gone. Nobody could tell me how to carry on.
For many years twin brothers Samuel and Morgan had been separated by an ocean. But even before then, a distance lived between the unknowable Morgan and his taciturn brother. As adults Morgan lived in Europe and Samuel at home in the Queensland bush. Samuel’s only contact with his brother was via his manuscripts that arrived by mail. The painstaking work of translating Morgan’ writing from Nahum, the language they invented as children, both consumes and inspires him. But now Morgan has died. Ana, the woman he was living with, agrees to carry his body home to Australia. With her she brings one final Nahum manuscript. And some startling revelations.
I have loved Nike Sulway’s prose since I read Rupetta. She has a gift for conjuring place and there is a quietness that inhabits her writing, a reflectiveness pulls you into it, that makes the story sing with a deep harmony just beneath the surface of the words. Dying in the First Person actually addresses some of the problems I had with Rupetta. In Rupetta it felt like Sulway’s mind was fevered. It was an expansive story, so many elements were mixed in there, and as a result I found it difficult to review, difficult to sum up what it was about despite the fact that I adored it. Dying in the First Person is far more intimate in focus. It follows Samuel’s grief, and his meditation on what it means to face someone’s death, the loss of someone’s unique words, what it means to communicate with a person in words, in language, and then to have them die. Samuel’s musings are slow and laboured and, by the end of the novel when he seems to accept his losses and find the way forward, Ana provides the coup de grace that upsets everything he thought he knew.
The last section is narrated by Ana and contains the “revelation” you read about on the back cover. And it is a startling passage, a short chapter really, that I read rapidly, breathlessly. It turned the novel into a house of cards, highlighted a level of uncertainty that comes with any relationship, any conversation, every investment into your assumptions about someone else. It is a wonderful, unsettling chapter to close the novel and I can’t discuss it in any great detail without ruining its affect on future readers, which is immensely unsatisfying but there you are.
In some ways, I missed the expansiveness of the Sulway’s Rupetta, I missed the big picture circling the intimate one. But that big picture is still there in Dying in the First Person. What could be bigger than life and death? It’s just woven through the text, through every word and sentence, and so gently, so deftly, that it’s almost out of focus. Sulway’s prose is rich but razor sharp, it cuts right to the heart of a thing, underlines it for further discussion, circles it some more before moving on. Somehow it’s both dreamy and incisive. A hugely enjoyable and strangely uplifting read.
Dying in the First Person, Nike Sulway: four and a half stars.
Publisher: Transit Lounge.
Published: May 1, 2016.