by P J McKay
The Telling Time’s beautiful cover is in sharp contrast to the book’s contents – two grim and troubling stories woven together over time by family ties and family secrets. This is a story of naivety and trickery; trust and abuse; immigration and culture shock.
The Telling Time is the story of Gabrijela, a young woman from 1950s Yugoslavia, and her New Zealand-born daughter Luisa as she sets out to visit her mother’s homeland, now Croatia, in 1989.
Pip McKay’s writing is so vivid that right from page 1 when Gabrijela is describing her detested job, the clinging smell of the sardines wafts off the page and it’s easy to imagine the bleakness of the canning factory and Gabrijela’s determination to get away from it. Little does she imagine that her ‘escape’ won’t simply take her from the family home on Korčula Island a short ferry ride to the ‘mainland’. Instead, in answer to a plea from an immigrant friend of her father’s she is sent to Auckland to work as a housekeeper.
The descriptions of that Auckland, when women drank Pimms and ginger ale, young people danced to ‘Blue Suede Shoes, and an electric washing machine was a novelty, are well researched and sensitively narrated. They will take readers back to a time when we talked scornfully about Dally plonk but really knew very little about the hard-working group of immigrants who made it. For Gabrijela, homesick and impossibly far from home, a blue aerogramme in the letter box, two weeks old when it arrives, is the highlight of her day. Gradually though she makes friends and improves her English.
McKay paints an engaging picture of immigrant life in Auckland, revolving around the Dalmatian community, their social gatherings and family intrigues. Narrated by Gabrijela, this part of the book is often quite amusing, but Gabrijela’s secret, the real reason she left home, lurks brooding in the background: is it something really dark or something that in the light of 2020 New Zealand we would just shrug off?
Thirty years after Gabrijela came to New Zealand her daughter decides to take off to explore Europe and in particular to seek out her mother’s family on Korčula. Travelling through Macedonia and into Croatia brings cultural shock to Luisa much as her mother experienced on arriving in Auckland. But for Luisa it’s like travelling back in time to less sophisticated surroundings. Unbeknown to Gabrijela, Luisa hopes to get to the bottom of her mother’s youth – to find out what that unspoken taboo thing is that has always been in the background.
Although there are times of immense sadness and brutality in The Telling Time, it also celebrates love and hope; self-discovery, forgiveness and moving forward. McKay’s prose lifts the people off the page so that they become lifelike and the book is a joy to read.
Author: P J McKay
Publisher: Polako Press