Aspiring Daybook by Annabel Wilson describes a year in the life of a young New Zealander, Elsie Winslow, whose carefree travels in Europe are interrupted by a phone call:
A phone call in the middle of the night. Not a good sign.
Out of context, the wrong time, too early or too late.
Malevolent omen. So often the sound of bad news.
And it is bad news. Elsie’s brother has cancer. She boards a long haul flight, heading home to help look after him. Time, place, light – all these reliable fundamentals seem to be falling apart. “I’m on a plane, going forward in time, back into the past … Today is New Year’s Day, and it’s getting erased.” Elsie’s journal becomes a kind of touchstone, or navigation tool, for piecing together a new reality on the other side of this catastrophic news.
Home for the Winslow family is Wānaka, gateway to the Mt Aspiring National Park, a lakeside town, a mountain town. The lake and the mountains are a palpable presence in Aspiring Daybook, just as they are in actuality for those who live in this beautiful, occasionally brutal region. For Elsie they provide much-needed markers of continuity, permanence and place. She becomes a dedicated witness to the lake’s daily moods (“hallucinatory”, “douce bleu”, “grave”, “rough as guts”, “still”) and the changing face of the mountains: “the mountains are a navy T-shirt with a Napisan stain round the neck”.
Alongside these observations, and spooling out like the snow-fed rivers that also pour through the text, Elsie charts what I can best describe as the courses of several currents in a powerful river of love. These currents include the love Elsie feels for her brother, her father, a child she teaches, and the rekindling of feeling for a former boyfriend.
The journal’s entries come in many forms: poetry, prose, medical reports and communications, photographs. The diary structure and the collage effect perfectly echo the piecemeal way that, thrown into chaos by terrible news, we gradually reassemble ourselves. There’s a beautiful clarity to all the writing, and a coherence to the work-as-a-whole. The production standards and book design are superb. Aspiring Daybook is a lovely little shapeshifter of a book, one that page by page works steadily against erasure, attentively re-creating the beloved, even as it simultaneously works towards accepting mortality, suffering, pain and loss.
Aspiring Daybook recently won the fiction prize in the 2018 New Zealand Mountain Film & Book Festival, but it could equally be a contender for an award for poetry, utilising as it does both prose and poetry to tell this unique love story:
Matter is energy times the speed of light
squared. Matter is energy dancing in form
and it goes on forever.
From “What’s the matter?” in Aspiring Daybook by Annabel Wilson.
Sue Wootton is co-editor of Corpus.
Aspiring Daybook by Annabel Wilson is published by Submarine/Mākaro, 2018.