The last time a debut novel by a New Zealand author got a rave review in the Guardian and then a few days later another rave review in the Irish Times was like actually never ever, but it happened last month to Wellington writer Annaleese Jochems, the author of Baby, which she always delights in describing as a rewrite of Fifty Shades of Grey.
Baby won the best first book prize at last year’s Ockham New Zealand national book award, and was published by Victoria University Press in 2017. Two years ago! The new lease of life and flurry of activity in Britain is due to her agent securing a publishing deal with Scribe. As for the two reviews, they weren’t merely favourable and positive; they were agog, and the tone of each was that Baby had touched a kind of zeitgeist.
“A memorable addition to the growing coterie of unapologetic antiheroines (dis)gracing the pages of contemporary fiction,” wrote the Guardian’s reviewer. “There are implicit questions throughout this novel about the complexities of race, gender, power and identity in modern New Zealand, a place Cynthia [the book’s heroine] describes as ‘our dirty country full of animals’ …Is Cynthia a monstrous sociopath, or simply a lonely, performative product of our Instagram age? How can we tell the difference? Perhaps, Baby posits with caustic glee, they are the same thing.”
And this, from the Irish Times: “Meet Cynthia, the millennial girl of nightmares: jobless, aimless, unskilled, vain, hypersensitive, she sits on a couch day after day eating Coco Pops and porridge, watching reruns of reality TV. Oh, and she’s a complete psychopath who can justify anything from bad moods to murder in her pursuit of what she wants – even if she’s not quite sure what that is. In her young female protagonist Jochems has succeeded in creating a highly original voice that both intrigues and repels.”
Jochems was compared to Zoë Heller and Miranda July, and Baby to Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh, one of the great critical successes of the past few years.
The reviews were published exactly as Jochems arrived in Britain to appear at the Edinburgh writers festival. She also popped over to England, where she took meetings with a film director and producer who have taken an option on Baby, and hope to film it in New Zealand.
Exciting times for a 25-year-old novelist and graduate of the IIML at Victoria University. I called Jochems at her Wellington home, and she said, “My dream was to be reviewed in a kind of balanced way in the Guardian before I was 35. That’s now been thrown out of kilter.”
She said she hasn’t actually read the reviews, not properly. “I’ve been skimming,” she said. “I don’t have a good take on the Guardian review cos I read it really fast. And I mostly didn’t read the Irish one at all…When I get a bad review, I’ll read it a hundred times.”
She said she was really a lot more excited about working on her second novel. On the day I called, she’d just finished a new rewrite.
“It’s like a rape fantasy in Northland about this woman’s hot nephew,” she said. “It’s about the desire for self-destruction, and powerlessness, and dark forces.”
I asked about her reading. She said, “I’m reading Sappho at the moment. Sappho’s cool. That’s a good lesbian. Yeah, the original lesbian. She’s good.
“And I really liked Zoë Heller’s book What Was She Thinking. It’s about this high school teacher who gets with this teenage kid. And The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing, that’s one of the best books of all time. It’s about this woman who keeps having sex with this man who has cause to hate her, and does hate her. He’s always sneering at her and she has no respect for her husband. But my heroine does have respect for her husband. Mine’s a love story, so it’s all about the triumph of love.”
And then she started talking about feminism and I was like oh God here we go ZZZZ but actually she was so immediately and enduringly really interesting that I asked her if she would like to shape her thoughts into an essay for Reading Room and she said yes, all good, she could do that. Her essay will appear soon. Annaleese Jochems: she’s just so in demand right now.
Baby by Annaleese Jochems (Victoria University Press, $30)