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Diane Awerbuck

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Dysfunctional Wonderland: A Review of Terry Westby-Nunn’s The Sea of Wise Insects

The Sea of Wise InsectsSigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, said there are no accidents. Terry Westby-Nunn’s debut novel, The Sea of Wise Insects, takes that notion to the extreme.

The significantly named Alice Wolfe is the veteran of more disasters than she can remember. Covered in scars both physical and emotional, she has 329 stitches – and that’s just on the outside.

It’s safe to say Alice is at odds with the world – with her writerly ex, Ralph; with her coke-schnarfing brother, Andrew; with his skeletal blonde inamorata, Veronica; with her coiffed mother, an icy bitch at the best of times. (Tellingly, Mr Wolfe is an absentee dad who calls in every three months to offer insights into issues). Alice’s family has always been splintered: she doesn’t belong in it.

Her struggle for identity is littered with the mistakes we make in our 20s – lazy career choices; sad, bad men. Alice is routinely defined by someone else: she is a daughter, a sister, a girlfriend, a secretary. When things happen to her, she is “cursed by fate”: each new setting is another horrible Wonderland.

Her passive aggression makes a distinction between injuries that are self-inflicted and self-nominated (the ones we allow others to do to us). We see this apparent contrast in the weird Hotel Tisca, a seedy British halfway house that Alice tells herself is for recovering amputees.

More importantly, she is at odds with her own stories. Whether she is proud of her knack for survival or not is a major motif: guilt and responsibility are at the heart of the action -not least because Alice has told the police she was driving when Veronica is fatally wounded in a car accident.

As Westby-Nunn’s novel progresses, there are differing interpretations of events. The characters negotiate, but we never know what is “real”, or who is telling “the truth”. These parallel universes are significant.

Alice, so clearly out of control of her life, must find who is behind the machinations that will land her in jail for culpable homicide: she is a character in search of one, believable, story.

The search for definition is also an intense interior monologue. Quite literally, Alice must overturn received narratives.

Since his disappearance, Ralph has published a book titled The Sea of Wise Insects. When Alice reads it, she realises he has used “Lucy” (the reversal of “Alice”) and her family fiction for his own purposes. What so unsettles Alice is that she is no longer certain which version is true.

Westby-Nunn focuses on the classic question of fate and free will – how much say we really have in what happens to us. Both books hit the same nerve: they deal with why families are dysfunctional; how we cope with that by making up stories; what happens when the people we rely on turn out to be untrustworthy.

The novel deals with these traditional themes but is also saturated with South African cultural references. Similarly, The Sea of Wise Insects could not have been written before David Lynch, or emo, or Country Death Song. Like Alice Hoffman, Westby-Nunn locates herself as a feminist magic-realist.

As with most debut novels, the pace is uneven. The prose packs most punch when it relies on clear, startling metaphors, hammered home with sound devices: “How will Veronica’s mother marry her flawless daughter to this foreign substance, this deviant drug that belongs in film and magazine articles – not in her daughter’s bright red, quite dead, blood?”

Westby-Nunn makes talented comparisons, and we need to see more of them.

Conversely, the reliance on rhetorical questions drags the book down. While the conceit mimics the circular logic of the existential crisis, the lines don’t need the extra weight. Less is more, even in South African Gothic.

In Wonderland the fantastical merges with the psychological – but it all works out in the end.

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