When I uprooted my family from Seattle this year to move to Wellington, New Zealand, I knew little of the foreign, faraway place beyond its reputation for gray days and great coffee. My first introduction to the country was on the long flight over when I read “Can You Tolerate This?,” a stunning essay collection by New Zealand poet Ashleigh Young, and it immediately put me at ease. Her lyrical perspectives on quotidian moments had a universal quality that made me feel like I’d be right at home in the Antipodes.
Young’s essays, which won the 2017 Windham-Campbell Prize in Nonfiction, are wry, confessional, understated and often hilarious. Each piece lifts you up and deposits you in a place you never expected to find yourself. They startle with their immediacy and candor; they offer comfort even as they ask you to see things anew.
Young is a sharp observer who revels in her sense of the absurd and uses precise language and striking images. The memoirlike collection begins with a story about a real-life boy “with a lopsided smile and sticky-out ears” who grows a second skeleton and becomes increasingly disabled. The story immediately proves Young’s penchant for fresh language, which she wields with indelible results. Describing pictures of the boy, Young writes, “As stark as these photographs are, they also show grace. Harry looks poised, as if about to raise his arms above his head and pirouette. . . . Even as he is wracked and pushed about by his new skeleton, he flows.”
The bewildering nature of the human body is a recurring theme, as is Young’s family, who star in multiple essays. We listen as the angsty, clever Young clan sidesteps big issues and avoids overt affection in favor of barbed quips and non sequiturs. But even these stalled gestures of connection win us over, rooted as they are in unexpected warmth and sincerity.
Yoga becomes a sort of mania for Young, and we see her both intimately invested in and slightly surprised by her own practice. It’s this layered, almost conflicted tone that draws readers in: “The deep breathing looks like a roomful of people trying to calm themselves down, as if we have received some momentous news and are trying to keep ourselves from losing our heads.” Yoga clearly matters to her, yet as she watches herself from the outside, she’s equally aware of a persistent sense of alienation in all that matters.
Young also writes lovingly and acerbically on the ins and outs of audible public breathing, her brother’s vexing sartorial choices, her mother’s sense of self and comical encounters she had as director at the Katherine Mansfield Birthplace.
The luminous and lovely title story details Young’s visits to a chiropractor, though she tells the story in the second person, cataloguing a connection with the man adjusting her that is subtle and almost inexplicable. The story is quiet in ways that catch you off guard, communicating a series of simple, everyday moments that, as Young shows them to us, shimmer with unexpected light.
“He has you roll to the left,” she writes. “Then he presses one of his knees against your thigh — he has large square knees that dwarf your smallish round ones — and pushes. There’s a faint cracking sound, like roots pulling up. You imagine fissures appearing in your body as if during a quake.”
Growing up in Te Kuiti, New Zealand — the sheep and shearing capital of the world — Young spins a web of stories from yearning, loneliness and naivete, which she now looks back on with a droll, self-effacing voice. After writing a fan letter to Beck when “Odelay" is released, Young confides that she received a reply from someone: “The letter said: ‘Wow, what’s it like living in New Zealand? Do y’all have the Funky Chicken there? — Beck.’ I read the letter over and over, my hands shaking, until it ceased to make sense. Although, I had to admit, the letter hadn’t made much sense from the start.” And yet, she was won over by his interest in her far-off corner of the world, and “it didn’t seem an idle interest, but a genuine one. He was so interested that he’d said ‘Wow.’ ”
Young shares with us her complicated yet fierce attachment to her parents, her brothers, her daily life and, of course, to New Zealand itself. Her attachments provide the lens through which she conveys her experiences. The essays, though sad and triumphant at times, are neither self-pitying nor self-congratulatory. Rather, Young, like the best essayists, writes with humorous self-regard about her own lived small moments, which reveal as much about us as they do about her. The intimacy of her stories creates a connection, making even a foreign place feel like home.
CAN YOU TOLERATE THIS?
By Ashleigh Young
Riverhead. 256 pp. $26.
Maggie Trapp is a writer living in New Zealand.