Familiar contours, Kim Worthington

The Snowball Waltz
Renée
Penguin, $24.95, ISBN 0 140 26885 5

A Tale of Spite and Rancour
Josie Mune
Penguin, $24.95, ISBN 0 140 26714 X

Gingerbread Husbands
Barbara Else
Godwit, $24.95, ISBN 1 86962 016 X

Dreams of America
Tina Shaw
David Ling, $24.95, ISBN 0 908990 47 2

If novels were dinner guests, at least two of the books under review here would make for a pretty dull gathering around the table: earnest, yes; sincere, certainly — but hardly lively, entertaining company. No doubt such a comment says much about this reviewer as host, but there is something about domestic realism, a mode favoured by so many New Zealand women writers, that starts me yawning.

Typically, such novels focus resolutely on the life of a woman immured in domesticity; male characters remain on the periphery and yet are absolutely crucial as those who have made central female character what she is — stunted, constrained, trapped. We rarely see the inner lives of these men who remain psychologically vacant, poorly developed, empty containers shaped in accordance with abundantly familiar stereotypical roles: overbearing fathers, selfish lovers, abusive husbands — all empowered, if paradoxically weak, favoured members of the patriarchy.

The plots are usually minimal, a chronological pull through the central character’s life, with flashbacks providing necessary information about crucial formative moments in childhood — or, rather, deformative moments, moments in which men (or women kow-towing to masculine desire or narrow-minded, prejudicial patriarchal society) determined the trajectory of the female protagonist’s life. Sexual abuse is common, as are abortions, forced adoptions or solo motherhood. The women are bitter and frustrated and guilty about being both; they are unable to form meaningful relationships or find fulfilment. The plot invariably traces the gradual realisation by the female protagonist of her potential, often through art or discovery of female community. She strengthens, realises her latent ability, finds her voice, her true self and, finally, affirms her independent being at the emotion and moral climax of the novel.

It could be said that this pattern is common to the lives of many women and that such novels might be inspirational for some. But do these simple “unreconstructed” feminist novels make for interesting, stimulating reading? I think not.

This has as much to do with narrative style as content. Domestic realist novels are usually written in flat, colloquial prose, using either a first person protagonist-narrator or a limited omniscient narrator — limited, that is, to the portrayal of only the central character’s inner life or emotions. The female protagonist’s voice is realised at the cost of the convincing portrayal of others. And, more often than not her voice, that of everywoman, is unremarkable, readily forgotten.

2

A Tale of Spite and Rancour, first novel by Josie Mune, slots easily into the category I’ve just described. Jane Martin, the first person narrator, is the second of her father’s three illegitimate daughters: “I am a middle person. I am of middle height, weight, colouring. I am so very middle that people seldom notice me. I am the middle sister.” Their mother waits in vain for her lover to leave his wealthy wife, spinning stories about the life the family will lead together when he does. When the relationship ends, Jane’s mother tells the girls their father is dead and fabricates for herself a new, more acceptable identity as widow. As a young adult Jane is seduced by “The Charmer” to whom she falls pregnant; her mother and older sister arrange for the child to be adopted out — something she seems unable to forgive. Jane works as a bookshop assistant; her employer, old Mr Perry, encourages her attempts at writing in the most cliched terms:

You must dig deep into the pain of the moment when your father didn’t recognise you, when your child was taken from you. You must explore it all, sift through it, turn it around. You must use your life, every experience you have ever had. And you must translate it onto the page. When you are able to do that you will be a very fine writer.

Jane’s translations of her life experience take the form of magical sagas about characters like the Wood Cutter’s Daughter, the Sea King, the White Queen and a host of allegorical figures with names like Envy, Despair, Venom, Rage and, of course, Spite and Rancour — all interspersed with truly awful snippets from her fictional writing. She has moderate success with one novel but her creativity dwindles until she churns out nothing more than magazine stories and the odd pot-boiler. After a failed marriage and some years abroad, she returns at middle age to her mother’s home, venting her spite and rancour on her mother and sisters.

Suffice it to say that she eventually works through her bitterness and insecurities and forgives her mother the lies she has told and harms done shortly before the old woman dies. Jane realises her mother’s capacity to spin endless lies is not dissimilar to her own sustaining creativity. The novel ends with Jane being reunited with her long-lost adopted son and her reaching the conclusion of an allegorical story on which she has been working for some time: the Wood Cutter’s Daughter (Jane) escapes from the dungeons of Envy’s castle, an escape that results from her refusal to take on the role of Despair.

The blurb on the jacket describes this as a novel in which “fairy tales and life weave intriguing patterns”. There is no intriguing patterning. Jane’s life story is rendered in straightforward realist narrative. The spliced-in bits from her magical sagas are a clumsy device that unsuccessfully attempts to give emotional depth to what remains, when all is said, a very middling protagonist in a very middling novel.

3

Renée’s fourth novel, The Snowball Waltz is set in Porohiwi, a small East Coast community stunted by interbreeding and prejudice. It offers a portrait of three women: Gertrude Nusz and her twin granddaughters, Mem and Souvie. Their mother, Anna, was the product of a group rape. Three local youths thought it was “time to teach stuck-up Gertrude Nusz a lesson. She need[ed] bringing down a peg. Look at her father. A German. Everyone knows Germans were Hun Hogs, torturers, rapists, enemies in the Great War…”

Anna was born during the 1931 earthquake: “A girl. God help it.” Seduced by a travelling saxophonist who absconded, she died of a broken heart a few days after giving birth to her daughters. Gertrude, tough and independent, raises the twins, scraping a living selling honey and running a plant nursery. The twins grow up and marry. Souvie leaves her husband and enters a lesbian relationship, settling in London with her partner Resa. Resa rediscovers the Catholic faith and becomes so distraught about her sinful relationship that she “kill[s] herself and fulfil[s] every lesbian cliche known to man”. The narrow-mindedness of the Catholic clergy and the evils of homophobia are drawn out in a narrative that might be seen as fulfilling every lesbian writer’s cliche.

Souvie returns to Porohiwi to shake off Resa’s ghost and learns that Mem, unhappily married to an adulterous man, is having an affair with her ex-husband. This is only one of a complicated web of “incestuous” relationships teased out between various members of the community. These inter-relationships are complicated and at times confusing but no doubt this is the point — given the intricate connections between all the members of the town, their prejudices and racism seem ridiculous. This suggests the significance of “the snowball waltz”, a motif for the transience and endurance of communal interconnection, which recurs throughout. The narrative proper begins:

The music starts, two people invited by the Master (or in this case, Mistress) of Ceremonies begin to waltz. When the music stops they separate and seek other partners …. No one invited to dance may refuse, although when the music next stops, a dancer may leave the floor and not extend the invitation to dance to anyone else… The pattern of music, dance, silence, separation, music, dance, silence, separation is repeated until all the people in the room are up and waltzing… [T]he dance ends and the dancers go their separate ways.

But Renée’s communal dancers don’t realise they are dancing or recognise their relationship with other dancers. Gertrude and her family are victimised as anti-German sentiments again surface, fuelled by Mem’s bitter brother-in law, Affy. (Is this a little far-fetched given the 1990s setting?) His furtive anti-German campaign is uncovered and quenched; things return to normal. The novel ends with friends and family gathered to celebrate Gertrude’s birthday. As she plays the piano the party guests begin the snowball waltz; the twins, estranged for the length of the novel, dance in each other’s arms.

Bigotry and intolerance are given full reign in the lengthy middle section of the novel which,at times is rather humorous. But humour is not, it seems, Renée’s intent; the exposure of petty prejudice is apparently to educate the reader about the seriously damaging consequences of intolerance and bigotry. The effects are far from comic: rape (a second time, enacted by a new generation), physical assault, ostracism, suicide and clear parallels are drawn between small-town prejudice and events in Rwanda, Bosnia, Vietnam, Chile and Auschwitz. Despite the large cast of characters and plenty of action, the novel remains slight and morally trite. The reader remains distant, hovering dutifully above the three women, never encouraged to really feel for or with them. Somewhat indifferently, we reach the expected conclusion: the women triumph over prejudice, are variously fulfilled and are finally reintegrated into a sustaining matriarchal community.

4

Gingerbread Husbands, Barbara Else’s second novel, has all the stock characteristics of domestic realism. Sophie, mother of three, has once again been let down by her husband, Russell. Forced to relocate, ensconced in a huge, dilapidated old house to which she discovers she has no title, she is left alone while Russell, a famous scientist, disappears on another expedition to some far-flung corner of the globe. Sophie battles migraines and anaemia, the tantrums of teenagers, the demands of a needy friend, the disdain of her “liberated” mother, the increasingly unwanted attentions of her older lover, Matthew, and her longing for Russell as she tries to instil some semblance of routine and normality into her family’s life. Under false pretences Russell has left her without an income, sinking her independent finances into the trust that is funding his travel. Her efforts are further hampered by the presence of two of Russell’s young disciples, who have been installed in a newly renovated office in a walled off section of the crumbling mansion.

What lifts the novel out of the category of yet another banal rendition of a woman’s struggle to survive a husband’s desertion and the rigours of mothering without financial and emotional support is Else’s parodic, at times even flippant, treatment of the conventions and devices of domestic realism. More than the odd chuckle is secured at Sophie’s expense. She is not simply a victim but in no small degree the authoress of her own misfortune. She is abundantly aware of Russell’s failings but is unable to resist him:

What a recipe men were, firm and chewy outside, while inside was tangy squish to revel in. Fragile creatures, and didn’t they think they hid it well, beneath the triceps and testosterone, slugs and snails and puppy dogs’ tails?

Sophie’s flaws — naivety, bouts of self pity and silliness in equal measure — are teased out through the narrative with good humour: “Wife = love = happy. Note the error here? Excuse me, shouldn’t husband have a place in the equation? Good heavens, no, he’s away dealing with your finances.” The scene in which Sophie electrocutes a marauding “possum” is notable; as are some of the interactions between her and foot fetishist Matthew; and the smelly Congo is a delight. Yet she is sufficiently well characterised that she stands as a strong character despite, indeed because of, her weaknesses. In part this is facilitated by carefully integrated flashbacks to Sophie’s childhood. These sections are perhaps the best; Else convincingly portrays the young “Smudge’s” unhappiness and the defensive layers she builds around herself to protect her from the hurts that issue from the puzzling adult world. To an extent the narrative of Sophie’s adult life is driven forward by her, and our, gradual understanding of events and relationships of the past.

In the farcical conclusion all the characters, even Russell, are brought together for a final bow on a storm tossed night in the Gothic mansion. Sophie seems to have gathered herself together sufficiently to assert her independence and dismiss both Matthew and Russell. Or has she? Is she still trapped in the prescribed roles of some romantic plot? Thankfully, Else leaves the conclusion ambiguous:

She’d burnt the bridges back to safety now. She’d crossed her river just like Caesar did, and it took him long enough, too….

“I’ll think about [what to do] tomorrow.” Sophie clung to the banisters in the manner of a famous romantic heroine. In the manner of a famous romantic hero she added: “Tonight, I do not give a damn. Because I’m out of here.”

5

Of the four novels considered here Tina Shaw’s second, Dreams of America, stands out as a refreshing departure from the familiar contours of the others. For a start the central character is a man — Angelo Delgardo, a tightrope walker who loses his heart and nearly his life for love of Girly Moran. Dressed as a boy, Girly rides a motorcycle on the Wall of Death. Second, although recognisable 1950s New Zealand provides the background (hanging is still the penalty for murder), the showground setting enables Shaw to introduce a cast of quirky, grotesque, larger-than-life characters — not least Girly’s guardian aunt, the sinister Madame Soukowsky, and her side-kick (and local hangman), Diving Dave. Third, although the plot borders on the sensational, it is packed with action and intrigue and makes for compelling reading. Finally, Shaw offers an mixture of uncut, even gawky, prose, shot through with stunningly evocative and penetrating imagery; constant tonal changes — from melodrama to romance, from comedy to sentimentality — keeps the reader on their toes.

When Angelo falls in love with Girly, he falls foul of Madame Soukowsky. Soukowsky’s underground connections spread far and wide; an incarnation of evil, her appetite for cruelty, pain and death is only matched by her obsession for food and her perverse love for Girly. When the young lovers elope, planning to head to America (Angelo dreams of crossing Niagara on tightrope, Girly of becoming a horseback performer in the crowd packed circuses abroad), Soukowsky enacts revenge. She calls in favours and frames Angelo for murder. Found guilty, he is set to hang. The conclusion brings a sigh of relief, but also a twinge of disappointment. All is stitched up rather too neatly, with Girly disposing of Soukowsky in a manner not dissimilar to Dorothy’s disposal of the wicked witch of Oz; Angelo is released and the couple set sail for the America of their dreams.

Shaw’s characters are not everymen. They are portrayed in terms of exaggerated external characteristics (some insight is given to the internal motivations of the major characters) with no attempt at simple realism. Irreverent (Soukowsky on midgets may offend), entertaining, with a punchy plot and a touch of romance, Dreams of America is certainly engaging, if a little rough around the edges.

I know whom I’d choose to have to dinner.

Kim Worthington teaches English at Victoria University. 

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