In the final chapter of Mary Shelley’s brilliantly melodramatic fireside yarn, Frankenstein’s creation, wracked with guilt and all-consuming despair, vows to flee to the northernmost extremity of the globe. ‘I shall collect my funeral pile and consume to ashes this miserable frame,’ he tells polar explorer Robert Walton, near swooning with horror. ‘I shall ascend my funeral pile triumphantly, and exult in the agony of the torturing flames.’
Does he? Vincent O’Sullivan picks up the loose thread and spins out a gripping second yarn as the benighted creature is ‘rescued’ from the ice by Captain Francis Sharpe and the crew of the Dorothea.
We are somewhere in the early 1800s, somewhere near the Arctic circle. Shelley’s book has been published, anonymously; the extraordinary exploits of Captain James Cook have cleared the field of any further maritime advancement. ‘What did the greatest Yorkshireman leave for maritime ambition, on anything but a minor scale, to be fulfilled?’ Sharpe muses. With no scientific goal, no expectation of new discoveries, he decides to travel down the globe from the north pole to the south, ‘for no other purpose than I choose to do it. And no one else has done so. I do it merely to show it might be done.’
Embarking on what he admits is nothing more than a ‘polished folly’, their ‘inexplicable guest’ retrieved from the ice is a subject of distraction and intellectual discussion. For the ship’s carpenter, this new arrival, with his frightening bulk and intimidating countenance, is simply a friend, a quiet but keen learner, courteous to the otherwise-mystified crew. For the older Sharpe, entrenched in an Old Testament Christian ethos, he is a primitive man, ‘or, in a way that bewilders the mind, sui generis?’ For his younger cousin, Lieutenant Richard Jackson, a devotee of Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (hence the name he gives Viktor Frankenstein’s lost and last creation), he is the archetypal ‘untampered natural man’. In the oak-panelled comfort of the captain’s cabin, they talk around their differing beliefs. It occurs to me, Sharpe says, ‘that the reality of sin, which you so dismiss, may cause a man no more stress than your grappling away with the notion of total liberty, of nature in itself the explanation of all things. Your obsession in your way as my own with another. Your Rousseau, my Aquinas.’
Jean-Jacques warms to the camaraderie and civility of this cloistered environment. Over nights of learned conversation or quiet reading, he begins to experience what he has craved for so long — fellow human beings, as Shelley writes, ‘who, pardoning my outward form, would love me for the excellent qualities which I was capable of unfolding.’
They travel south, in a cocoon of growing understanding and something akin to friendship, until, following a chance purchase at a port in Australia, their faith in this softly spoken man-of-sorts comes to a crashing end. In a postmodern twist of storytelling, Jackson comes across Shelley’s book. He passes it on to Sharpe who learns, with unquestioning faith in the veracity of the tale, that their guest is a ‘depraved creature’, a murderer, a ‘thing beyond nature’ cobbled together ‘from corpses and the over-reaching of science.’ Sharpe is mortified; Jackson feels the pang ‘of being chastened in his optimism for what humanity might one day be.’ What to do? A plan of sorts is hatched as the Dorothea approaches the rain-battered slopes of Te Waipounamu, where Jackson is hoping to catch another creature of wonderment, the legendary moa. Here, foiling the plans of his so-called rescuers, Jean-Jacques, a creature made from science and nearly destroyed by humanity, flees again, finally succeeding in his lifelong search for love.
Huge in scope and intellectual heft, ‘Mary’s Boy, Jean-Jacques’ is the last and by far the longest of the stories in this book. It is a compelling read, imbuing the breathless revelations of Shelley’s account with a test case of Enlightenment ideals within the fading light of the great age of maritime exploration as the Dorothea continues its steady path to the next unwritten chapter in Jean-Jacques’ unending life.
All but one of the other stories are quieter, more contemporary, domestic, pivoting on the ties of family, loss and betrayal.
In ‘Good Form’, two siblings, successful in their professional lives, broken in their personal lives, are anchored to the old family farm by the inexplicable repercussions of their father’s infidelity, retold through the limited lens of childhood. The writing is spare, the story lingering.
In ‘Splinters’, O’Sullivan sketches out the gentle intimacy of a Friday afternoon tradition shared by a grandmother, Emily, and her grandson Donald — draughts, freshly baked melting moments, a quiet banter at odds with the perfunctory efficiency of her daughter, his mother, with her ‘frantic Friday face’. But buried within the warmth of this domestic scene is the memory of Emily’s own past transgression — undiscussed, unshocking even, but irrevocable in its presence: ‘It was there and you were here. You could look at it as long as you liked and imagine it looked back, but the terms were implacable. You took it for what it was, or not at all.’
The understated tenderness of ‘Splinters’ is even more apparent in ‘The Walkers’, as Tommo prepares his intellectually disabled son for life after his death. The poignancy is underplayed, building slowly beneath Tommo’s cheerfulness and Eric’s limited understanding of why his father is impressing on him a map of the streets of Dunedin.
Betrayal appears again in the superb ‘The Young Girl’s Story’. O’Sullivan is on home turf. Louise lives with her parents in London. Her mother’s research into the works of writer Manson — a nod to the author’s work on Katherine Mansfield — takes her to an academic conference in Nice where she introduces her bright, clever daughter to her colleagues. In staging a suggested tryst with the scholarly Kelvin Stein, Louise executes a punishing betrayal of her mother’s expectations with all the swift and incisive mastery of a Mansfield short story.
O’Sullivan builds his stories slowly. His words are measured, his sentences often truncated, his plot lines as unhurried as a walk on a stony beach. He reveals the weight of his subject with seemingly minimal effort. Only at the end of each story do we recognise his extraordinary grip on our attention. This is most evident when he adopts the dramatic tropes of the historic novel. As in ‘Mary’s Boy, Jean-Jacques’, ‘Ko tēnei, ko tēnā (also published in Te Herenga Waka University Press’ 2021 book Middle Distance: Long Stories of Aotearoa New Zealand) drives a spine-chilling nail of a tale through the mannered formality of a Victorian drama. Residing in the shabby grandeur of the rural estate once belonging to his father, slave trader ‘Mad Sir Jack’, Oliver is clever and reclusive, living in gentlemanly distraction with his enlightened wife and beautiful half-sister. His brother Mason is, it would seem, a chip of the old block, a sharp-eyed amoral adventurer travelling the globe to a remote outpost in Northland, New Zealand, to engage in the horrific purchase of a human artefact. Like the horse he drives in his final race back at his family’s estate, the plot careers towards a final act of revenge breathtaking in its violent execution.