The winner of the inaugural Michael Gifkins Prize, Attraction is the debut novel of New Zealand prose writer, poet and artist Ruby Porter. Written as part of her Master of Creative Writing thesis at Auckland University, Attraction was published by Text Publishing in May 2019.
Attraction follows three young women: Ilana, Ashi, and an unnamed narrator. On a road trip between Auckland, Whāngārā and Levin with her almost-girlfriend and her best friend, the narrator is haunted by the memory of her emotionally abusive ex-boyfriend, New Zealand’s troubled history of colonisation, and the pressure she feels to make art in order to call herself an artist.
Attraction is an exquisite story. Told in flickering images where the past is interspersed with the present, the North Island’s various landscapes unfold in tandem with the unravelling of the narrator’s personal family history. The landscapes are sketched in meticulous detail, such as this description of distant hills: ‘… get close enough and they reveal their lines to you: wrinkles, creases, the staves of music. Cows dot the ridges like a child’s attempt at drawing crotchets, black and squat.’
While the plot itself is relatively straight-forward – three friends on a road-trip around the North Island where jealousies swirl and personal histories untangle – there is a constant intensity that pulsates beneath. This intensity is driven by the many mysteries of the novel, the largest of which is the first-person narrator herself. Her life feels so real, so distinct, that the novel almost reads like an autobiography. Yet the reader is never fully allowed to know her, nor to trust her. Her emotions and responses are always held at a distance. The narrator finds it difficult to connect with and share her own feelings, so the reader is made to feel this same disconnect – she remains stranded in the abstract, with even her name withheld.
The novel begins with an order: ‘Don’t write this down.’ In a te reo class with her tutor and friend Pita, the narrator is reminded that learning is about the kōrero. Despite ‘learning to speak,’ the narrator withholds the truth about her relationships, her family history and even present events. While Attraction is largely about the stories we tell about ourselves, about our family histories and about our nation, it is also about what we choose not to share. The reader is reminded about the infallibility of memories, and about the danger of trusting the person telling the story. ‘Every time you remember something,’ the narrator repeatedly warns, ‘you’re only remembering the last time you thought of it.’
The prose is emotive and artistic. At Whāngārā, the night ‘seems to bend over and the stars just fall. I walk along the beach, cracking sand like a crème brûlée.’ Yet it is raw and honest – sometimes blatantly so. Clutching at a small motel soap feels like ‘clutching at the foetus of a mouse, small and slippery.’ Each line comes as a shock, to either startle or impress.
Attraction highlights how New Zealand’s ‘clean and green’ landscapes are not what they are marketed to be. Auckland ‘hides behind its concrete shapewear,’ the countryside has a ‘real ugliness’ to it, Lake Horowhenua is contaminated by run-off and fertiliser, Foxton has ‘dead expanses of driveways,’ and every town they pass looks ‘worn out, or half finished, expired.’
The novel captures the truth about small New Zealand towns within small interactions between onlookers, family friends and the three main characters. While Ilana and the narrator are assisted in a moment of kiwi kindness when their car breaks down, this kindness is intermingled with terse moments of homophobia and racism. The ugly underbelly of New Zealand society is often exposed.
Attraction is about belonging and not belonging. As a Pākehā with conflicted emotions about living on Aotearoa land amidst a troubled colonial history, the narrator feels significant ‘white guilt.’ As a Pākehā, she feels like ‘someone imaginary, someone who only resembles a person.’ In Whāngārā, her whiteness is no longer invisible, its like ‘wearing another skin, one that isn’t stuck on right. Or it’s wearing nothing at all.’ The narrator is consistently challenged in how she sees herself and how she relates to the land. Alongside revelations about the New Zealand Wars, the narrator begins to feel overwhelmed by the landscape around her, feeling ‘something stronger than memory, something bone-deep. It warms me and pains me.’ Her tenuous connection to the land is often connected to her inability to speak.
Told in short lyrical snapshots, Attraction is impossible to put down. There are so many quotes to savour, it is impossible to choose just a few. In what is a distinctly New Zealand novel of road-trips, a family bach getaway, hidden histories, small towns and kiwi kindness, Attraction is also queer, feminist, and a blatant examination of what it means to be Pākehā. It is a brilliant, beautiful novel.