Reality checks, Howard Warner

Telling Stories
Geoff Palmer
Secker & Warburg, $24.95,
ISBN 0 7900 0463 1

Finding Home
Dominic Sheehan
Secker & Warburg, $19.95,
ISBN 0 7900 0462 3

The Transfiguration of Martha Friend
Noel Virtue
Vintage, $24.95, ISBN 1 86941 303 2

My mental life is a constant replay and rescripting of what I should have said and done, or of extrapolating the real into the possible and exploring every angle of it.” So notes the narrator of Geoff Palmer’s novel Telling Stories. It’s a mode of behaviour we can probably all identify with in some form or another.

Here, Palmer uses it as the thematic and structural foundation for the drama that unfolds and also as a way to explore beneath the surface of his complex protagonist. Stephen Spalding is a fat, bespectacled, civil servant, shy with women and ill at ease with the kind of behaviour needed to “get ahead” in life. He goes to work every day at the dole office, observes his male workmates’ jibes and gestures aimed at every passing female, reads a book in the caff at lunchtime and avoids the after-work bonding sessions at the pub.

But beneath this character lurks another, who can hold his own in any situation, who always has the right answer, who commands instant respect and so on. This is Eric Dombey, Spalding’s alter ego, cleverly presented to us in this tricky novel before we ever meet his creator.

Between these two versions of reality, there exists a tension which continually challenges the reader’s sense of the nature of truth. Different manifestations of this truth/lies/stories conundrum emerge as each character is developed. For example, Stephen’s brother Stuart is a flashy high-flyer in a public relations agency, devoted to stage-managing the career of an ambitious but clueless politician. All the while he leaves unfulfilled his wife Betti, the “bimbo with money and tits” whom he married as part of the career plan.

We see it in the elder Mrs Spalding, ruined by a smooth-talking, bigamous con-man (mother as saint or slut, depending on which son is telling the story); in the dispute between lecherous Fletcher and delectable Marie (sexual harassment or lying tease?); and in the violent goings-on between the odd couple living next door to Stephen at seedy Barchester Towers. By the time we reach the cataclysmic denouement the poor reader has trouble knowing just what to believe. Which is the charm of the novel, and no doubt just as the author intended.

Palmer’s writing craft is very slick for a first published work of fiction. The style is brash, cynical, full of delightful hyperbole (“I suspect if all the toilets in the house were flushed simultaneously the water table would drop six feet”) and quirky interior monologue, as the author allows his character to shine before his audience of one. Palmer shows a virtuoso flair for the language through word play, strong verbs, precise punctuation and occasional forays into formats such as play script, film script, inter-office memo and rough-edited speech draft.

Mostly it works, though in patches he gets a bit too clever and it becomes corny: “Back in Pid’s office we talked turkey. And spaghetti and frozen chickens and several other riveting campaign launches, before getting down to the reason for my visit.” Or too self-conscious: “I’ve been looking back over the gaps in this journal; and wondering how to fill them in because, with the exception of the last few days, it’s something of a discontinuous narrative. In that sense, I suppose, I’m not a true diarist. If I was, I would fill in every day religiously whether or not anything of significance happened.”

Where the novel particularly annoyed me was in the too-frequent postmodernist digressions into the author’s developmental process, its bashing of the theme of how we create fictions in our daily life. In one case, a whole chapter is devoted to the subject. It’s a clever idea, deftly handled through characterisation and plotting, but risks becoming tired from the over-explanation.

There’s also the odd flaw of continuity, such as the sudden mention of a Mt Victoria where all previous references were to Mt Victory (oops!). In all, I found Geoff Palmer an exciting new voice in our literature and hope he has more stories to tell of equal challenge to the imagination.

2

The novel of childhood remembered is still very much alive and kicking, despite the years since Katherine Mansfield was in her prime. Finding Home is the story of a boy growing up in the 1960s in a small New Zealand town. It is told from the viewpoint of Kevin Garrick, a standard 3 pupil at the local school and the oldest of the two children still left at home (the others are either away at boarding school or, in the case of independent-minded Bernadette, off flatting in Auckland).

Amid Kevin’s microcosmic world we find some strong, well-rounded characterisations: younger brother Ed, who is a bit daft and believes himself to be a horse; Mum, who holds the family together with her tenderness and understanding; Dad, whose surly uncommunicativeness is probably de rigueur for the era; the fatuous, lying Mrs Riddle, Kevin’s teacher, for whom Kevin invents the nickname “Rabies-woman”; Mr Harris, the kindly young teacher who gains Kevin’s respect and is known by the girls as a “spunk-bubble”; and wild, rebellious Sheree, Kevin’s “best friend”, who is probably the most empathetic character of all.

The story is presented as a loose sequence of scenes, not all inherently dramatic. It was a difficult book to get into, as the early scene-setting chapters take far to long to set up any real sense of direction or development.

In chapter 3 we come across a conversation between Kevin and a schoolmate, Julie:

“Hi, Kevin,” she smiled, her golden Shirley Temple curls nodding dangerously.
“Hello,” I said politely but didn’t stop walking.
She matched my stride. “My family went to Australia for Christmas.”
“That’s nice.”
“I saw the Sydney harbour bridge … and some kangaroos. what did you do?’
“Nothing much.”
“Who do you have this year?”
“Miss A’Court.”…
“Miss A’Court is nice, though. You’re lucky. I liked her last year.”
“Uh huh.” I looked around for an easy escape. There was none.

And so it is for the reader: no escape. You can either read on and hope things spice up eventually or start another book.

Between the two covers Kevin plays with his brother, has a few run-ins at school and tries to understand the strains on his home as Dad’s timber business falls apart. Towards the end there is a tragedy, which provides some catharsis. And we are left to ponder three small mysteries. Who has been stealing household items? Does the mysterious “child-eating” neighbour Mrs Hill really exist? Why does Mrs Riddle hate Kevin and Sheree so much? The answers are unsatisfying.

The writing style is fluent, consistently right for the young narrator. If that leaves it sounding flat at times (“I tried to imagine what it was like being dead but the best I could come up with was Ed asleep, without the snoring”) it is probably because Kevin, as observer and interpreter, is one of the more level-headed, unimaginative of the cast.

As suits this sort of story, the period details are precise — Elton John’s “Island Girl” playing on the radio, “Jaws” on at the local flicks and Ray Columbus the biggest star that Bernadette gets to serve as a waitress. The obligatory description of the town, with its flagpole parked outside the barber shop and its mountain always “watching over your shoulder”, places us clearly in (a) a standard New Zealand town and (b) Taranaki, which the biographical note tells me is Sheehan’s home region. The events of the school year — trips to the “murder house”, swimming sports and spelling grades — recalled vividly my own long-forgotten early-learning years. And the attitudes, as displayed through various characters, ring true for such small towns: the veneration of anyone who’s been a rugby rep, the despising of white-legged “Poms”, the opprobrium aimed at “fairies” and la-di-da city types.

Above all, this wistful little novel, while evocative, feels as if it never strays too far from real-life memories.

Though a persevering reader will gain some satisfaction from the watching the development of a family through hard times (I presume this is what the rather limp title means), one longs for some real small-town passion, drama and intrigue — the sort that Ronald Hugh Morrieson had to spare in his novels carved out of the same backblocks.

3

The word “transfiguration” in the title of Noel Virtue’s new novel is so potent as to lead the reader to expect fireworks early on or at least some strong hint of what’s to come. It does in fact begin with a transfiguration of sorts as elderly Martha Friend receives a letter from her long-lost son Laurence, now transfigured (his word) into Letitia.

Along the way we learn of others, such as the Devonport wharf, transformed from working-class icon to stylish consumer haven. Martha’s own transfiguration, held back until the final chapter, is subtle yet immensely pleasing. To get there and attain some much deserved happiness in what is left of her life, Martha has a tonne of emotional baggage to clear.

The narrative alternates between the present, starting from the death of Martha’s husband Bryce (a bully even beyond the grave) and the past in the form of excerpts from Martha’s journal, detailing the family’s shift from England to the “isolation, sadness, living here in the almost nether-world of the South Pacific”.

Her memories are mostly painful, reflecting the difficulty for English expatriates in adapting to a colonial environment — a kind of reverse cultural cringe. Neither she nor Bryce had made any significant personal friendships during all their 30 years in New Zealand. Bryce had failed in his attempts to make his mark, to conquer the new land, to be “someone”. They had made do with each other, continuing to live — as Bryce had bullishly once announced — “in the colonies, establishing a civilised English tradition” without choosing to mix with the natives. It’s an interesting perspective on our national development and familiar territory in the novels of Noel Virtue.

This having to come to terms with her new culture is part of Martha’s transfiguration. But other ghosts and encumbrances clog her life: the obnoxious, patronising Belle Harris, a distant relative of Bryce’s, whose purpose seems ostensibly to judge and criticise Martha; Nonnie, the daughter whom Martha “lost” shortly after their arrival in New Zealand and whose memory she keeps alive through a lifelike doll enshrined in a bedroom; and most of all the distant memory of the young Martha Friend, whose vitality and promise seeped away under the repressive influence of her husband. Now, in her mature years, she finds the world opening up: she meets some interesting neighbours and discovers that her husband had a hidden life. A few small kindnesses from new people in her life represent major steps along the road to Martha’s becoming a whole person at last.

This is a gentle, tender novel, with a complex structure that befits the hidden strata of meaning. Long after the reading of it, it resounds with the pathos of passing time in the lives of humans.

Howard Warner is a Wellington writer. 

Tagged with: , , , , , , ,
Posted in Fiction, Literature and Review
Search
Subscribe to NZ Books
We're pleased you're using the New Zealand Books archive.

To ensure the survival of this important journal, please consider
subscribing — only $44 a year, or $30 for digital-only.

Go to the Subscribe page.
Search by category

Read more