Review: Mary's Boy, Jean-Jacques and other stories

Reviewed by Jack Remiel Cottrell

Reading Mary's Boy, Jean-Jacques and other stories is the literary equivalent of realising everyone around you has the same rich, complex internal life as you do.

Reading Mary's Boy, Jean-Jacques and other stories is the literary equivalent of realising everyone around you has the same rich, complex internal life as you do. Vincent O’Sullivan then invites readers into those lives with stories that grow broader and more intriguing the harder you look.

The title novella, Mary's Boy, Jean-Jacques, channels the melancholy strangeness of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein into a worthy sequel. Along with the eponymous creature, we follow the two officers of a ship that is a little way into circumnavigating the globe – picking up their guest in Arctic pack ice. Captain Sharpe is a Catholic, obsessed with following in the footsteps of James Cook. Lieutenant Jackson venerates the enlightenment but is equally obsessive about his dream of capturing a moa.

Much of the story unfolds in the claustrophobic officers’ quarters as both Sharpe and Jackson proceed to “civilise” Jean-Jacques – each according to his own values.

If Shelley drew upon the horrors of the Greek Myth Pygmalion, then this novella calls to mind a twisted version of the play by George Bernard Shaw. Indeed, if you know your Frankenstein, you’ll enjoy the layered references to the novel. There is philosophy. There is Romanticism. There is examination of the nature of obsession and ambition. There is shifting perspectives – Jean-Jacques finally gets to own his story once he is again cast away from civilisation into Fiordland.

The story offers a sympathetic view of the creature, particularly the damage done to him in the name of civility – which mirrors the damage done by Captain Sharpe's heroes as they sailed forth to "civilise" distant lands.

It should have felt heavy, all this in 100-odd pages of novella, but does not. Instead, I was guided just enough to feel clever, while also feeling like there was still more to discover.

The other stories are just as dense – you could never accuse O'Sullivan of being an easy read – but the payoffs are always worth the effort. Almost every character gets at least a brief turn being the focus of the narrative (which I sometimes found wildly confusing). However, every character offers a perspective that adds to the story and to the world, and this makes re-reading these stories feel like seeing a panorama of what I’d previously glimpsed through a keyhole.

The Walkers is possibly the best example of this. Unusually for a story with an intellectually disabled protagonist, it depicts a life that is neither tragic nor a triumph. Instead of harping on about what Eric doesn’t understand, the story presents Dunedin as he knows it with background context offering the story Eric doesn’t provide.

I was struck by how self-aware the writing is, without ever slipping into snide self-deprecation. The Far Field makes explicit reference to Chekov’s Gun, which is a perfect fit – this collection certainly leaves nothing hanging on the wall.

Ko Tēnei, Ko Tēnā issues the most ringing shot. I felt real shock at the revelation of a character buying a human head, even though I knew it was coming – it’s written on the inside cover. This put the world off-kilter enough that I wasn’t even looking for what came after.

If I have one criticism, it’s the order of the stories. The book opens with Good Form, which has the toughest narrative structure to follow. It might have been given first billing because it is classic O’Sullivan – the depiction of rural New Zealand is spot-on – but feels more like a wall than a door into the collection. I’ll admit, I started reading the book from the middle.

In the title novella, Sharpe muses that a journal is, “The space where one man is written into another.” The same sentiment could be applied to this collection – each a space where one story is written into another and where if you look hard, you will find the strangest occurrences cropping up in familiar places, the most shocking acts perpetrated by people you were sure you knew.

 Reviewed by Jack Remiel Cottrell