Anne Kennedy‘s The Ice Shelf tells the story of Janice, an aspiring writer who is working on what’s going to become her masterpiece. She is about to set off for Antarctica on a residency (such a thing actually exists) to work on her novel, but first she needs to find a temporary home for her fridge – her one worldly possession. As she traipses around Wellington in the middle of the night trying to find a friend, any friend, who will do her the favour of looking after her fridge while she’s away, she decides to edit big chunks out of her novel draft, intending to replace them with better writing once she gets to Antarctica.
The Ice Shelf opens with the acknowledgements of Janice’s novel, which go on and on until… well, we’ll leave that for you to find out! In her acknowledgements, Janice is endlessly – and at times delightfully insincerely – grateful to a cast of more and less pleasant characters that have populated her life, to the point that she sometimes forgets what she’s meant to be thanking someone for so she promises to come back to it later. She is relentlessly upbeat about and unrealistically grateful for everything these characters – in particular her wayward parents – have put her through, and she relates her life story in detail.
The one thing that Janice keeps repeatedly coming back to is how these negative experiences have helped her develop as a writer and given her something to write about. And it’s true: life is what you make of it, and everything – literally everything – can be used as inspiration for writing. Drawing on your own darkest experiences can be a powerful tool in making your writing stronger. Ironically, though, Janice herself decides to edit much of this self-referential content out of her work-in-progress.
Janice is a brilliant example of an unreliable narrator. These can be tricky to write, especially if, as the writer, you want to make the reader aware of the true state of affairs when the narrator refuses to acknowledge it. Kennedy pulls this off effortlessly: Janice is deliciously generous to characters that she clearly dislikes, and when her laptop – with the only back-up copy of her novel on it – is run over by a car on the motorway and smashed to pieces, she claims to be only slightly disheartened. Any reader who writes can tell we can’t trust Janice when she says this. What writer would not be broken to lose months’ worth of work?
Janice isn’t a likeable character, and at times Kennedy pushes her a little too far: Janice uses others for her own benefit and makes excuses for her own behaviour to such an extent that the story at times loses its credibility. On the other hand, this surrealism leads to some hilarious moments. It may not be a credible scene, but imagine the satisfaction a writer would feel in tipping an entire binful of rubbish over someone who critiqued her work as “trash”!
Despite her selfishness, it’s difficult not to sympathise with Janice if you’re a writer. Throughout the night, she edits and edits her novel draft, literally ripping out several scenes in order to strengthen the novel as a whole, and with the anticipation of being able to write something better to replace these sections, once she gets to Antarctica. We’ve all been there, feeling like our writing is terrible and we have no option but to destroy it, start again with a fresh sheet, re-write better – but the problem is (as Janice realises too late) if you delete everything that doesn’t live up to your own highest expectations, you’ll soon be left with nothing. If the writer becomes her own worst critic, she runs the risk of becoming her own worst enemy. Don’t let your inner critic stop you from telling your story.
You can find The Ice Shelf at Unity Books or order it from Victoria University Press.