All This by Chance
All This by Chance is Vincent O'Sullivan's third novel, over a decade in the making. It follows a family over several generations from post-war England 1947 to Europe mid-2000s. Stephen escapes the full employment, good food and unbearable dullness of rural New Zealand for a grim post-war London. Here he meets Eva, a striking young woman of Eastern European descent. Eva, whose real name eludes her, was sent as a young child from the ever-increasing chaos of Germany to the safety of her adoptive parents, a caring and educated Quaker family. Life is surprising and happy for our young pharmacist, in love with Eva, surrounded by empathetic elders who present positive role models for a young man with a fraught relationship with his father. Yet, on a chilly London day, a letter and news of the past change the nature of the couple’s relationship to each other and the past that they attempt to keep at a distance. Eva’s great-aunt Ruth has arrived in London, a survivor from Poland awash in her own mind - the doors firmly shut to the memories that torment. O’Sullivan writes deftly, introducing us to these characters, engaging us with the joys and sorrows of their respective lives without sentiment, with rich descriptions of place and brief encounters and conversations that allow snippets of information, piquing our curiosity yet never hammering a ‘message’ home. Religion and faith, science and rationality play out across these pages with both ease and tension as the various family members exercise their love, frustrations, confusions and anger. In Stephen and Eva’s children, we glimpse the impact of the Holocaust on the next generation: David, obsessed with his family past and a desire to find his place, his Jewishness, vents against his father and is frustrated by his inability to track down the answers he so desperately craves. His sister Lisa, rational and pragmatic, seems to be untouched by the impact of her family’s past, yet the death of her mother and great aunt and their buried histories have life-changing repercussions: her closest relationships are shaped by the past that she carries with her willingly or not. This generation is unable to capture a past too raw, too close to contemplate the depth of damage: the secrets - lost in burnt papers, buried in denial and swallowed by those who have knowledge but do not wish to burden others - will not reveal themselves. Esther, David’s daughter, wanting to understand the burdens her family carry, is the secret-hunter, never setting out to resolve the mysteries of her family but drawn and compelled to understand, spurred by her father’s unhappiness, her aunt’s life and her own eagerness to bring history out from the closest. On many levels this is a novel about the intergenerational relationships of family - the humour and the drama that binds people together, about the impact of the past on the present, while also presenting a humane and prescient analysis of the world we live in now: its borders, prejudices and ambitions. All This By Chance reminds us that our history is not chance but of our making, even when encounters and actions may seem coincidental. O’Sullivan’s taut writing, compelling settings over time and place, and memorable characters make All This By Chance a compelling and thoughtful novel.
If we don't have the past in mind, it is merely history. If we do, it is still part of the present. Esther's grandparents first meet at a church dance in London in 1947. Stephen, a shy young Kiwi, has left to practise pharmacy on the other side of the world. Eva has grown up English, with no memory of the Jewish family who sent their little girl to safety. When the couple emigrate, the peace they seek in New Zealand cannot overcome the past they have left behind. Following the lives of Eva, her daughter Lisa and her granddaughter Esther, All This by Chance is a moving multigenerational family saga about the legacy of the Holocaust and the burden of secrets never shared, by one of New Zealand's finest writers.
Vincent O'Sullivan is the author of two previous novels - Let the River Stand, which won the 1994 Montana NZ Book Award for fiction, and Believers to the Bright Coast, which was shortlisted for the 2001 Tasmania Pacific Region Prize - and many plays and collections of short stories and poems. His most recent collection of short fiction is The Families.
His work has been much awarded and he was made a Distinguished Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit in the 2000 Queens Birthday Honours. Vincent O'Sullivan was the New Zealand poet laureate 2013-2015. He lives in Dunedin.