Reviewed by MJ Burr
On the night that Carla Reid plans on celebrating her wedding anniversary with her husband Kevin and their grown son Jack, their New Zealand farmstead has never felt more like home. But when Ben Toroa and another aspiring gang member brutally force their way into the house with robbery and more on their minds the night and the rest of both their lives take a radically different direction.
As Carla struggles to come to terms with the aftermath and bereavement of different kinds, and Ben faces the consequences in prison, their stories continue to interweave.
This book came heralded as a winner of the Kobo/NZ Author Publishing Prize, and a shortlisted entrant for the NZ Heritage Book Awards. Could it really be that good? And if it is, what makes it so?
And the answers are “Yes, it is” and “Everything”.
But in expanding on those assertions I’m going to abandon the cool, academic detachment of the third person and give way to the viscera where the hugely-talented Sussman largely appealed to me and occasionally kicked me.
First things first – The Last Time We Spoke is a redemption novel revolving around an unspeakable crime: a home invasion resulting in murder, maiming and rape. Carla has the misfortune to survive it where her husband and son do not and is condemned to live with her grief, her anger and her hate for the perpetrator, who gets fourteen years for his part in the crime. In addition to losing a family more precious even than most, her way of life and the certainties about it that most citizens take for granted and her hopes of any sort of future, Carla enters a downward spiral that skirts a predictable outcome which she survives by a thread.
That thread attains a tenuous strength through an epiphany that leads to her involvement with the perpetrator, Ben. Slowly, terribly slowly, and after the almost-inevitable false starts, she sets him, and herself, on the path to some sort of triumphant redemption. Teaching him to read is the least part of her effect upon him, for the beauty of her purpose tames the beast of his soul. Carla’s achievement is most touchingly encapsulated in the butterfly episode, but I resist the temptation to expand on that because it needs reading, re-reading and then reading some more.
So much for first things.
Second things: in looking at what makes this infinitely better than any other light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel story, what was immediately apparent to me was the sheer power of the writing. The chief ingredient in this was the ring of authenticity present in the book from earliest times and throughout. Dialogue, attitude, behaviour and scene-setting all bespeak the investigation and research that went into painting colour, life and credibility into what might easily have been a down-and-dirty, monochromatic story of true bottom-feeders – or as Sussman has it, “the scum of the earth”.
Sussman has a truly enviable power to evoke, and I will forever covet some of her descriptive passages, viz. a girl with “eyes that were a catch-your-breath-blue”; a head-trauma patient with “his small face stuck on to his bandaged head”; the atmosphere inside a prison van which “was a foul brew of disinfectant, traffic fumes and old urine”, and the one that turned me inside out when she writes of Carla’s bereaved, devastated and desolate life “when every minute is empty and drags its feet toward nothingness”. I have never read a better description of the utter hopelessness of a life
sentence that has nothing to do with prisons.
For me, much of the technical excellence of the book lies in Sussman’s clever juxtapositioning of characters and scenes. Two examples of many – we meet two women facing the watershed of pregnancy. Carla is inexpressibly overjoyed at a long-hoped-for miracle, while Miriama is resigned, apprehensive and despondent. Shortly after, we see the collision of two polarised worlds in the differing first-day-home experiences of Jack, whose entire life thereafter will be passed in the love and happiness of being wanted, and Ben, a mere by-blow who is lucky to survive his first night in the company of an abusive, selfish and violent father. ‘As the twig is bent...’
Chapters are linked by the presence of an Atua, an all-seeing eye who comments on the story as it develops and who can therefore offer the viewpoint of traditional Maoridom on events and characters. This is needed because, bereft of their tikanga, the Maori characters of the story cannot do so, and in my view it worked well although some of the proselytising grated; particularly the hoary old saw that the suppression of te reo was a Pakeha plot rather than an expression of Sir Apirana Ngata’s injunction of “E tipu e rea” to grasp “the tools of the Pakeha”.
The Last Time We Spoke is an absolute triumph.
MJ Burr is a New Zealand novelist and former history teacher. You can visit his website here.
This review was first published in FlaxFlower reviews, which focuses on in-depth reviews of New Zealand books of all kinds, and is reprinted here with kind permission.