This could be the most pleasantly unusual book I’ve reviewed all year. And, although I shouldn’t really be dwelling on covers again, the most beautifully designed. In the blurb, this book is described as making “a plea for what the historian Simon Schama has called ‘the eloquence of peculiarity.’” That lovely phrase, I think, accurately captures the form and content of Brief Lives.
In alphabetical order, Brief Lives is a collection of anecdotes, ranging from personal memories, to biographical miniessays, to curious lists, to found poetry, to fables are arranged to form a dictionary of the weird and obscure. Under ‘A’, amongst other things, you will find a story which drifts into prose-poetry about Age, time and getting old. ‘B’ provides a dissection of biography – the dos and don’ts of reading other people’s stories (fittingly placed near the beginning of a book which is entirely made up of other people’s stories). ‘H’ yields a poetic biography of Harry Partch, an eccentric composer, ‘J’ an account of how an atheist became a Jesus impersonator after he’d died (one of my favourites). Under ‘O’, a list of “other” dictionaries: “The dictionary of lapdogs that have witnessed significant moments in history…the dictionary of lost guitar picks… the dictionary of poems containing the three consecutive words ‘watched her walk.’” ‘S’ has a deceptively moving story called ‘Specimen Jar’, about a woman trying to understand herself. And ‘Z’ gives a 15- minute lecture about the lives surrounding the creation of the zoopraxiscope. If you are not the least bit intrigued by any of the above, this book is probably not for you.
I was intrigued by nearly every entry in this odd book, which is a reflection on the quality of the writing, as much as on the diversity of the subjects, I think. Price, whose previous collection, Husk, won the NZSA Jessie Mackay Award for Best First Book of Poetry, allows her readers to become as enthusiastic as she herself must be about the various stories she has discovered and revived. With clarity, lack of pretence and a dark sense of humour, Price uses a range of voices – a teenager, house wife, a dead man, an office worker, a biographer – alternating her own voice in amongst them until gradually the reader loses track of what is biography and what is autobiography. By the end of the book I’d given up trying to define what I was reading – one moment I’d think poetry, the next prose, the next non-fiction or memoir – of course, in the end it didn’t matter what category it fit into, because it was fascinating, readable and satisfying.
As the book progressed, I found that the entries became stronger. Whether this was because I was still warming to the unusual style of the book, or because the subjects into the ‘J’s to ‘Z’s interested me more, or because the writing improved, I don’t know. All I’m suggesting is that, if you flick through first few pages at the uni book shop and aren’t immediately grabbed, persist. You may find it worth the effort. Also, if you’re looking for a birthday present for the person who has everything, I guarantee they don’t own anything quite like this…