Review: Peninsula

Reviewed by Josie Shapiro

Peninsula achieves that incredible thing that great storytelling can do – it creates myth and art about a place and a time, creating layers in our reality, giving it murkier and more meaningful depths.

Rich with detail and character, Sharron Came's debut story collection Peninsula started life as her thesis for an MA from the International Institute of Modern Letters, and it won the 2021 Adam Foundation Prize for her cohort. Set in the fictional Northland town of Hereford, the stories interweave and pull together the small community who watch the world change around them, the result of gentrification and climate change.

Many of the stories focus on members of the Carlton family – there's the ‘awkward, grizzly bear of a man,’ the patriarch Jim, and his wife, Di, a tiny woman, 'frail, but she's a fighter, gritty' and their children: Jack, who has taken over the farm from his old man, his twin sister Rachel, a lawyer who works long hours and runs long distance, and their younger brother, the 'incorrigible' Willy. Characters more peripheral come into play, too – Willy's ex-wife Kiri and his new girlfriend Melissa have a place, as well as his estranged best mate Ritchie.

The early stories, Peacock and Hospital, neatly kaleidoscope around the elder Carlton's, framing their lives and histories with economical prose and touching choice of language and scene, and then the third story, Preschool, shifts gear and takes the honour of best tension in the collection. Came shifts the narrative movement from present action to backstory here to great effect, telling both Kiri's fraught day at work alongside her memories of her broken marriage.

The title story Peninsula, Came tells us, was partly inspired by a Seamus Heaney poem of the same name. This story is the first of the two from Rachel's point of view. Her voice is natural and unforced and provides a clear example of the strength of Came's writing; at its best, Came's work is assured and soothing.

Many of the stories have an undercurrent dissecting the changes occuring in Hereford – new money from Aucklanders shifting to the picturesque Northland town, building subdivisions and boutiques and cafes, causing both positive and negative effects on the locals and the world at large. The stories of Peninsula are character driven but obsessed with the way we interact with and impact the world around us through both urban infrastructure and farming practices. Came's descriptions of landscape and natural environment are, like the rest of her prose, restrained but effective: 'Pōhutukawa leaves on the sand, mixing with fragments of shells and driftwood. Craggy rocks glistening in the sun, the muted greens and blues of the sparkling water.’

Third person point of view is Came's strong suit and in the stories where she's loyal to this, Came's in command like a writer with much more experience. The writing has a flow and an ease to it that hides the hard work. In the few stories where she mixes it up to first and second point of view, this ease slips away slightly and it's difficult to ascertain whether it's because of the point of view in the stories Trailblazer and the finale story Survivor or if it's because the narrating characters are teenagers. Whatever the reason they aren't quite as accomplished as the rest of the collection - though this is nothing but a minor quibble in a debut of such quiet confidence.

Peninsula achieves that incredible thing that great storytelling can do – it creates myth and art about a place and a time, creating layers in our reality, giving it murkier and more meaningful depths. Came's domestic characters have a realness to them, composed of both warmth and prickliness. The rural setting shows that great art can be made about anything – an overnight tramp to a small hut in a forestry block, a walk to the creek to see an eel, a school camp on the coast – and when it's done well, when it's done with such freshness and a loving eye, like Came has done here, it elevates and intensifies our lived experience.

Reviewed by Josie Shapiro