Avaro – Tabasco Sauce, Elizabeth Knox

Avaro
Deborah Petersen
Mallinson Rendel, Wellington, 1990, $14.95

Tabasco Sauce and Ice Cream
Lydia Wevers (ed)
Macmillan New Zealand, Auckland, 1990, $19.95

Deborah Petersen’s first novel, Avaro, introduces us to the people and countries of the fantastic other world of Arania. The young prince Avaro is descended from the ruling houses of two warring countries. When the book opens he is living with his father’s people, the repressive Lothians, customarily raised by a foster mother to the age of seven, later forbidden ‘the company of women’, and taught not to cry, his life subject to a strict timetable. At twelve escape presents itself in the shape of an enchantingly musical, cobalt (blue) eyed monicorn. Avaro escapes to join his mother’s people, the Barberians. There follows a war of succession, precipitous journeys, great escapes, battles, encounters with strange and magical creatures – among these a young New Zealander Anna. However recognisable she might be to the novel’s readers, Anna appears at the end of the book less well known to us than the Aranians, the familiar made strange. From her appearance Anna’s view takes over from Avaro’s. This reversal of the time-honoured fantasy device, ‘the kid next door stumbles into another world’, is rather daring and, I believe, one of the novel’s virtues. Another asset is its villainous human characters – though she seems not to approve of them, interestingly it is the novel’s villains in whom Petersen has the most interest. Avaro’s uncles and unhappy father have the book’s best scene, a frightening demon-raising ritual.

However, one misgiving I have about Avaro is that, at times, it is not a fully realised fictional world. It contains more inventory than invention, there is little sense of a field of vision around its points of focus. While much careful attention has been given to the invention of exotic names, creatures and customs, not enough attention has been devoted to the creation of strong characters, and narrative or sensory detail. At times the novel has the feeling of a constricting, rule-beleaguered, over-mapped dungeon-master’s dungeon. This prodigious invention is sometimes wasted; a potentially fascinating conflict in cultures is set up, and left unexplored. I was longing to see the Lothians and Green-dream Barberians attempt to live together (the Barberians eat vegetables, sit on cushions, have no particular hierarchy – at least within their royal house, talk to animals and dispense frequent hugs). It seemed to me that although this conflict was central to the novel and to the novel’s half-breed hero, it was thrown away when the fictional stakes were raised to a war with a Tolkienesque nameless Enemy.

Petersen should put away her Tolkien, give up the occasionally high-flown language that interferes with the story’s immediacy (hair is ‘silken’ people have ‘foes’ and ‘entreat’ others), should tell less and show more. It is perfectly natural that New Zealand should develop a fantasy literature unburdened by nationalist referents. Such books will find a wide readership, but will necessarily be judged as exactingly as the best international fantasy – this is an audience that won’t have a bar of any book that seems to need special pleading on the grounds of its origin.

Tabasco Sauce and Ice Cream, on the other hand, is a selection from the official heartland of New Zealand fiction. Lydia Wevers’ fifth anthology of short stories, it is comprehensively organised into four sections that reflect either story-telling mode – the use of the first person in ‘Voices’ – subject matter, the ‘most common kinds of stories’ in ‘Families’ and ‘Friends’, that ‘reflect the most important relationships we all have’; or subject matter and mode in the ‘Fantasy’ section. The book’s organisation should encourage readings that consider how a story is told as well as what it is about; Tabasco Sauce and Ice Cream will prove an ideal teaching text for secondary schools.

 

Elizabeth Knox is a Wellington writer and a keen reader of young adults’ fiction.

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Posted in Fiction, Literature, Review, Short stories and Young adults
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