As its title suggests, Nike Sulway’s Dying in the First Person is concerned more fully with the process of articulation, rather than the process of dying. It is a novel that conveys the struggle of language to embody our experience. Whilst the act of physical dying is prominent – from the opening sentence’s description of a suicide by drowning to the prolonged portrayal of the loss of an elderly mother – this is ultimately a work concerned with the intersection between life and writing, and the difficulty of using words to describe the many acts we undertake to give meaning to our limited days. While the inability of the written sign to become what is – or, as Sulway simply puts it, ‘a poem about a child is not a child’ – is widely interrogated in academia (and indeed there are allusions in the text to Derrida and Bakhtin), nevertheless it is refreshing to read a fictional piece so primarily concerned with the slippage between the word and the corporeal which is, at the same time, readable and emotionally engaging.

Samuel, the narrator whose perspective focalises the majority of the narrative, is the translator of his twin brother Morgan’s books. Written in a language the boys created in their childhood, Morgan’s works have generated a substantial fan base; even a conference is dedicated to the fictional land of Nahum. After Morgan’s death, Samuel is joined in rural Queensland by Ana, the woman who was with Morgan when he died in Amsterdam. Morgan’s relationship with Ana is unclear; indeed many things remain opaque for a good part of the novel.

Dying effortlessly moves between the past – where the two boys navigate the confused waters of their parents’ relationship – and the present, where Samuel is working on a translation of Morgan’s final work, falling in love with Ana, and watching his mother succumb to inoperable cancer. Samuel’s difficulties with his translation allow ample opportunities to ruminate on the nature of such work and Sulway authentically articulates his struggle:

I pressed my bare feet, my bare hands, my bare heart against the page, knowing I would never get beneath the surface. Knowing that no matter how hard I tried to annihilate myself, I would always come between the work and the world. I would always be the one who spoke of it, for it, rather than speaking from within it. (9)

Although steeped in the language of Nahum, Samuel is unable to fully realise his brother’s vision. His failure speaks to the disconnection between what we mean to say and what we can say: how can we enter the head of another, even when we speak the same language? How many secrets do we keep when we maintain certain realities? This theoretical struggle is echoed in Samuel’s relationship with Ana; a barrier exists between them, one which Samuel cannot fathom.

The lyricism used in describing the new lover’s relationship often bumps up hard against the more pragmatic prose of the memories, primarily because the character of Ana is something of a cipher – her role as a fully realised woman is kept in check until the last section of the novel, when she is given her own voice. Holding back so much of the storyline until this final section is a brave act, for it piles revelation upon revelation and pushes the reader’s sense of the credible. The story of the brother’s father, for instance, comes somewhat out of the blue, as the father figure has to that point remained enigmatic in the narrative. By contrast, we get a much greater sense of Samuel’s mother, who she is and the pain of her dying, and once again, Samuel’s role as a translator / writer is deftly used to interrogate the freedoms of textual representation:

If only she were a figment of my imagination. An old woman kneeling by her husband’s grave… The old woman will die, but her dying will always be about to occur, and occurring; it will never be completed. The pages in which she is dying can be revisited again and again; they will always be in the present tense. Her dying will never slip into the past tense; she will never become a ghost or a memory. (182)

Ultimately, it is the linguistic secret revealed in the novel – as opposed to the familial – which is most satisfying, because we are so highly aware of the construction of the world we are in. This is the challenge Sulway has undertaken: to both create a real scenario – for there is nothing here beyond the scope of plausibility – and to constantly draw our attention to the ways in which her medium is limited; that is, the weakness of words in comparison to the messy experiences of life:

The difficulty lay in getting language – any language – to say anything without being false. Everything I wrote was a shadow of the thing I wrote about: a shape more insubstantial but greater, too. Wide, dark, flowing out across the surface of the ornamented world … I worked hard to demonstrate that all these things lived, in the body, in the world, as we live – as I live – not only as languages and ideas, but as creatures formed of wind and flesh and love. (263)

There is always the possibility of this self-consciousness overwhelming the ability of the reader to immerse fully into the narrative. Yet Sulway has a strong sense of how to weave her ideas into the fabric of her characters’ lives, rather than having them appear as an ‘other’ text imposed on the top of her plot. It is apt that water is used throughout the writing as a metaphor, as there is an undercurrent, a stream of intellectual analysis which runs forcefully under this quietly powerful novel.

Rachel Hennessy, TEXT Vol 20 No 2 October 2016



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