In her young female protagonist – at times 14, elsewhere 21 – the New Zealand writer Annaleese Jochems has succeeded in creating a highly original voice that both intrigues and repels. With strong overtones of Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley novels, Baby sees two women – Cynthia and her cherished Pilates instructor. Anahera – embark on an extraordinary journey and friendship as they uproot their lives to go on the run... There are glimmers of dark humour throughout the book that help to cut through the boredom and repetitiveness of life in an enclosed space. A minor issue with the narrative is the character’s lack of objectives. Cynthia never reveals to us what she wants, not really, and it can be hard to care sometimes because of this. But Jochems does enough with the plot to keep us interested and her plain but precise prose style also helps to keep things buoyant.
Baby is a claustrophobic novel – a cabin-fever dream – its action largely confined below decks, where the world fits together “like a tiny set of organs”... There are echoes here of Megan Abbott, Emma Cline, Zoë Heller and Miranda July: writers drawn to the intricacies and ferocious possibilities of female friendship. There’s a dollop, too, of Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley; a dash of Lord of the Flies. What Jochems adds is a cloying grotesqueness. Baby is a novel of close-quarters living: of masticating mouths and human stink; of piss and vomit, sunburn and bruises, pimples and dandruff; of new fat expanding under the skin. A novel of bodies... There are implicit questions throughout this novel about the complexities of race, gender, power and identity in modern New Zealand... But Jochem’s narrative is a tale of veneers and facades – the selves we project and curate – and so such questions lurk, but never surface. Depending on the reader, this wilful exteriority will either prove the book’s undoing, or its triumph.