Superb reconstruction, Janet Wilson

Glamour and the Sea
Elizabeth Knox
Victoria University Press, $24.95,
ISBN 0 86473 305 4 

The cover is a racy, blown-up photograph of three youths with the unmistakeable look of an earlier generation; to the fore is the author’s father, Ray Knox, cigarette dangling from mouth; behind them soar cables and rigging of the square rigger Pamir, the sailing ship he went to sea in as a merchant seaman. It is the 1940s and the hero of Glamour and the Sea is about 20.

Elizabeth Knox’s new novel presents an original line on the tricky double-act of combining fact with fiction. Blending biography and autobiography with the genre of the mystery novel, she tells of her father’s early life, overlapping this story with her autobiographical mission of research. Central to this dual activity of excavating and recording the past are the powerful roles of memory and identity, themes which help determine the novel’s outcome. For Knox the activities of memory and self-location were originally predicated on emotional responses to her father’s absences, if we see as her fictional counterpart the child Lex Keene in her novella Paremata, who ponders her father Frank’s weekly departures and weekend returns:

…for Lex his arrival was always haunted by his departure. Weekends she would wake up from tangled dreams waking couldn’t quite comb out… She would hug herself and rehearse her memories of all the things she believed she would never know again… Sometimes, remembering these things, she could find the lost world simply by shifting her gaze from the memory to its environs… Sometimes she found her memories of the lost world had been snatched away… Then the lost world was a loosening mesh in which she was netted, beyond which was everything else, and what would happen, everybody else and what they had to say.

In Glamour and the Sea Knox pushes further her exploration of father and daughter, memory and reality, time past and future, by foregrounding her search for her father’ s past. Adapting the device of dramatised narrator, which Thackeray uses in Vanity Fair and Fielding uses in all his novels, she establishes this role in the opening chapter by introducing to her publisher husband the novel’s main story — “ ‘Of the good old time. Youth and the sea. Glamour and the sea’ “ — thereby framing it in the present, drawing attention to its fictional status and to its narrative processes. By constantly breaking the fictional illusion, by introducing chapters or telling them in her voice, Knox interweaves with the central story her responses to Ray Knox’s past, such as her memories of her grandmother, her discovery of her great-grandmother’s grave in the Karori cemetery. The “Acknowledgements” makes clear the boundary between fiction and non-fiction; she interviewed her father between October 1993 and January 1994; she is indebted to his unfinished autobiography Coughing Up, everything about his life until 1947 is substantially factual.

Counterpointing Ray Knox’s story and the father-daughter relationship which inspired the novel and complementing the theme of the narrator’s search is a mystery of considerable complexity. Introduced as if a real-life episode involving her father when he was in Wellington just after the war, stranded without a ship because blacklisted by the Seamen’s Union, is the story of an American ex-serviceman, Sam Thrift, who enlists Ray Knox in a search for his dead brother’s lover, the engimatic Hazel Carson. It is told with all the ingredients of confused identity, arbitrary encounter, separation, death, opportunity missed and gained and love, ill-starred, ill-gotten or sleazy, associated with wartime romance. But when read in conjunction with the father-daughter relationship which helps determine the novel’s thematic structure and which is the enabling condition for its fictionality, this story becomes more than a source of suspense. For it approaches the question of kinship and identity, irrefutable in Knox’s own case, through the angle of uncertainty: the mystery that drives much of the narrative momentum in the central sections of the novel and whose resolution is tantalisingly suspended until the very end revolves around a question of paternity: who is the father of Hazel’s son, David? Or, whose claim is strongest?

Knox’s relationship with her father is a persistent theme in her novellas about childhood, Paremata and Pomare, where he appears as a crucially important parental figure who, especially at moments of Lex’s personal crises, crosses over from the shadowy world of grown ups into the more lighthearted, exploratory world of the three Keene daughters. She makes no secret of their special bond: she is “the one he would gradually feed his fears and adult secrets, the one he had loved irrationally since she was a fierce greedy baby sucking his wife’s nipples flat”: his concern since babyhood would cause her “always [to] pause to reassess her distress if he asked her, ‘Don’t cry, Curly’ ”.

Her portraits of him have a luminous quality: a comic episode with the vacuum cleaner in Paremata, his parley with other subeditors on the Listener and his thwarted ambitions to write a novel in Pomare. In her fifth novel, however, Knox produces an adult encounter with her father’s younger self, endearing yet delinquent, requiring the same attention and understanding to be rounded out into a fully complex personality that she did as a child. Vividly recreating his youthful character, dispassionately yet affectionately recording his personal drama — the traumatic three years as a welfare boy on a farm in the Wairarapa, his girlfriend’s pregnancy, his voyages on the Wingatui and Pamir, the hurricane and stay in Vancouver — she writes straight from the heart. Her prose is rifted with the rich evocations and tactile images, which are hallmarks of her style.

Gone up into the green belt, the steep zigzag tracks, hand in hand like lovers — except at the turns. March: the wind dusted down the black boughs and pollen streamed, yellow veils between the lookout and the view. Pine cones complicated the brushstroke branches, clustered like barnacles.

Knox’s intensely personal engagement with her father, her able handling of the mystery about Sam Thrift and Hazel Carson, both developed through an exact evocation of the downtrodden, glitzy, yet radiant world of wartime Wellington makes Glamour and the Sea absorbing reading and her most accomplished novel yet.

In some ways the raw material of her father’s life as a merchant seaman and the bitter-sweet experiences of his early years play directly to Knox’s strengths. She never writes better or hits the pace of an adventure story more unerringly than when turning the spotlight on to a purely male-dominated world, depicting masculinity under siege. The 17-year-old Mark’s descriptions of the dugout trenches in After Z Hour are the most memorable; in Glamour and the Sea scenes of male aggression and fraternal bonding stand out as if carved in relief from granite: Ray’s fight with Russian sailors after his whisky, his jockeying for position with Thrift in their first meetings, his brutal retaliation to the farmer’s bullying. But even the encounters between Ray and his girlfriend, Livy, have a finely etched tautness, with dialogue and gesture making each scene seem to occur for the first time, while cumulatively recording another nail in the coffin of the relationship.

Livy looked into Ray’s eyes again and Ray saw — but didn’t understand — cool opacity, something congealed. She looked away to pinch her handbag open, unzip her make-up bag and press the retractable nipple of her plastic torpedo of loose powder on to the dirty velvet of her powder puff. She powdered her nose without consulting a mirror, reapplied lipstick to only the inside of her lips then pressed them together to spread it… Livy’s red lips seemed to pilot them forward into the night.

It is in such moments that the novel’s strength lies. Whenever Ray features, whether through the narrator’s scrutiny of his past, or straddling the different elements of the Thrift-Carson plot, as the cement which binds together the myriad minor snapshots of its cast of characters, the novel gains momentum. When he is absent it becomes more intricate and opaque.

The title Glamour and the Sea hints at the illusions which bind the characters: Ray Knox apparently in love with the sea but shorebound, Hazel Carson in love with glamorous servicemen, finding diverse sexual diversions in Wellington, a place of exotic allure yet under the shadow of death. Knox negotiates the overlapping stories of her three-tiered novel often ignoring a strict chronology and see-sawing back and forth so that the lengthy, almost 100-page chapter, “The Roaring Forties” — concerning what happens to Hazel Carson in these crucial years — is narrated retrospectively after Ray and Thrift commence their search and encounter the people implicated in these events.

But, although this disjunctive, episodic structure creates the illusion of memory’s workings, it does not always do justice to the dramatic potential of the plot. Knox’s authorial presence gives structure to the rake’s progress of her father, but the more complicated Thrift-Carson story suffers from a lack of narrative perspective. Thrift is an engaging, likeable and somewhat enigmatic character, drawn with just the right amount of detail, who provides a foil for the more volatile and inexperienced Ray: their relationship gives pace to the thriller-cum-detective story, with Ray offering local advice and support and Thrift exuding the mystique of the dispossessed American war veteran. But his problems with the past and his dislocated sense of identity, major themes in the novel, are revealed and indeed made relevant to the story’s outcome only in the final three chapters.

Knox’s problems of technique occur in the ambitious linking of her elegantly constructed story of her father into the larger world of Hazel Carson and the Wellington society she inhabits. The cohesive motifs of the search and the journey which emerge from the biography and detective story elements of her fiction regrettably have no counterpart in the more complicated scenes of social drama. Several of the characters with whom Ray and Thrift come into contact are lacklustre, or like Enid, Ray’s sister, who is introduced to reconstruct elements of Hazel Carson’s story, are otherwise undeveloped. Some are introduced piecemeal: the role and identity of Arthur Yates only gradually emerge, Fred Fulleylove and his wife Dymphna’s part in the mystery of Hazel’s dealings takes several chapters to unravel.

Although social encounters involving the extended family network of Magnus Temperley and his sister Sophie are recounted with an air of mystery, pointing to a cover-up, these ingredients, which could make the action come alive, lack the flame to ignite it. What might be a socially dynamic situation for its colluding participants, founders on the rocks of Knox’s documentary powers which work so well in the more historicised accounts of Hazel, Thrift and Ray Knox. Exact observation of detail and cameo portraits of characters in action slow down the novel’s momentum. Elsewhere innuendo and suggestion, due to the characters’ misapprehensions, or their misunderstandings about Hazel’s motives and activities, also demand an act of synthesis on the reader’s part.

Nevertheless, despite the loss of narrative pace in some of the middle sections, the novel remains buoyant through to its dramatic conclusion and Knox sustains the different levels of narration with poise, bringing them into perspective at the end. The plaudits should perhaps go not to any one character but to her representation of a world which her father centrally inhabited, providing her with an imaginative entree, enabling her to draw its outlines into sharper focus and to launch her own fiction. More than anything else, Glamour and the Sea is a superb act of reconstruction, bringing to life through a richly informed knowledge and graphic depiction of wartime Wellington an intricately evolving romance which reveals the illusions, confusions and traumas of these years. Even though it doesn’t completely succeed as a novel, it is a tribute to Knox’s remarkable skills that her story about this era, of such substance and such scope, is so compellingly readable.

Janet Wilson teaches English at Otago University

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