Thin issues, rich wit, a gang and a psychopath, Heather Murray

The Journey Home
Cathie Dunsford
Spinifex Press Pty Ltd (Australia), $24.95, ISBN 1 875559 54 X

Dr Beale’s Wednesday
Liz Falkner
Arrow, Random House, $17.95, ISBN 1 86941 297 4

The Visitation
Sue Reidy
Black Swan, $19.95, ISBN 0 552 99696 3

Leaving for Townsville
Bronwyn Tate
Otago University Press, $24.95,
ISBN 1 877133 15 9

Nothing Lasting
Laura Solomon
Tandem Press, $24.95, ISBN 0 90888 494 X

Purgatory for me would be confinement to a hardback chair, talkback radio blaring from a neighbour’s window whilst I was forced to read one “issues” novel after another, no relief in sight.

By “issues” novels I mean those in which the writer sets out to reform the world. You’ll know the sort of thing. Author A wants to save the whales. Author B has pretty much found men to be bastards and wants to rub our noses in their iniquity. Author C must show the inherent nobility of coloured races. Their audience imagined as white middle-class conservatives who are too smug or too lazy to think for themselves and with their own particular brand of liberal fanaticism in overdrive, the authors hammer out what passes to inept publishers as a novel.

Never mind that the plot is sketchy — often nothing more than a loosely cobbled together string of (one suspects) semi-autobiographical happenings. Never mind that the characters are mere fleeting shadows of people one hopes never to meet, that the dialogue is clunky. Style? Wit? Irony? All totally superfluous to these tub-thumpers, mere dilettante trimmings affected by the effete. The issue is the thing.

There are more of these novels about than you would think. When there is such a choice of novels by very good writers, it is a source of amazement and irritation that would-be writers and publishers deceive themselves into believing that the novel is the appropriate form for reforming the world.

Take the case of Cathie Dunsford’s second novel, The Journey Home: Te Haerenga Kainga, a sequel to Cowrie. Dunsford and Spinifex Press (Australia) seem to think that readers will not mind being hit for 300 pages with the issues currently exercising Dunsford’s mind. I mind it very much. The Journey Home is not a good piece of fiction. It is polemic masquerading as a novel. Issues to have their buttons pressed by Dunsford are: the awfulness of men (cf the superness of women, especially lesbian women), the violence of men, especially Maori men, the terrible legacy of colonialism, the cultural deprivation of oppressed (native) people, capitalist corruption and the elitism of universities. The plot follows Cowrie as she searches for self as a Pacific person experiencing cross-cultural stresses. The following extract is a fair representation of the whole:

“Yes. I hated having to use Chad’s adultery in this case. In fact, I was relieved to find he was seeing another woman. It took the worst pressure off me.”

“I’ve heard that from so many women, Ela. Men think it’s the worst thing they can do but, for many women under sexual pressure, it’s the best, despite media claims to the contrary. If only they knew!”

Ela laughs. “Well, there was a stage where I really feared the children would go to Chad when that lawyer spoke of the evils of lesbianism and brought up satanic ritual abuse. What has that got to do with two people loving each other, whatever gender they are?”

“It’s all confused in the minds of these christian fundamentalists. They divide the world up into good and evil, and anything they don’t understand goes into the evil pit. That means anyone who is different by race, class, sexual preference. It’s a wonder they get it together to procreate with another gender.”

“We’ve got a few fundies and missionary rednecks on the Big Island too,” adds Koana. “They are the main force in opposing Hawai’ian sovereignty. They simply cannot understand the historical takeover of Hawai’i, when it’s so blatant to the rest of us.”

“That’s because missionaries, throughout the world, have played a key role in duping indigenous cultures who by nature believed in spiritual forces. They knew it was the strongest way to get their land and resources, and unfortunately, it’s worked….”’

The Journey Home clunks in all its moving parts. When you come across a sentence such as the following in a novel, you know you are in for a hard time of it: “In front of the mirror, Lennie pulled a comb through her wayward damp hair and buckled the self-coloured belt around her narrow waist”.

Before (and probably after) she wrote Dr Beale’s Wednesday, Liz Falkner practised as a GP in Masterton. Evidently the daily grind of medicine was not enough for Falkner and she has given us her first novel, covering, not surprisingly, a whole day in the life of a small town female GP, newly separated from her husband and mother to three young children. Coping gallantly alone with family and a string of patients with ills to test the most stout-hearted, Dr Beale survives — survives, we are told, because this is a light-hearted novel, a compelling story, one that provides intriguing insights. Female GPs soldiering on alone are prone to let their standards slip and Dr Lennie knows what vital signs neat hair and makeup are when facing ills:

Her hair was nearly dry, so she pulled a comb through it again, tugging at its coarse mousy waves. Light green eyeshadow over her big hazel eyes, a discreet brown lipstick that came out pink when it was on, and she was ready.

Blusher? I haven’t got much colour. Where is it? I was sure it was in this drawer — oh, well, never mind.

2

Dr Lennie has her priorities right and she will win through. The medical profession is truly wonderful, curing the sick, yet still able to write light-hearted novels for us. Descriptions such as the above, full of “detail”, liberally bolstered with adjectives, are amateurish. Yet in the hands of a good writer, descriptions, “detail” and adjectives can take on a new and evocative life of their own, bringing reader to subject, character, or place with memorable directness, as in:

“So what’s new?” Smoking Nana shrugged her shoulders… [She] was a barrel-shaped woman in her mid-50s. Her faded green cotton gingham shift strained at her midriff and creased into sausages of fat when she sat. Over the dress she wore a rust-coloured home-knitted cardigan, the buttons of which were made from deer antler. Her hair was a bird’s nest of spidery tufts gathered into an untidy bun at the nape of her neck. Her son-in-law Terrence observed her sourly from the opposite end of the green Formica table. [She] held court while his children hung onto her every word as if it were manna from heaven.

Here Sue Reidy catches her readers from the first page with such a masterly piece. Detail is significant, not idle decoration:

[Mrs Flynn] scooped up a curl of fat from the enamel basin beside the stove, melted it in the large aluminium pan and added nine meagre mutton chops. She turned down the heat when they began to spit. Next she picked the eyes from seventeen peeled potatoes with a blunt knife…

Domestic trivia, but conveying in a form of sophisticated shorthand the nature of life with the Flynns. What will the other vegetable be? We know already: ‘Then she picked up a handful of the silver beet’.

Reidy is already known for her short stories, one of which won the Mansfield Award in 1985. In 1988 a collection was published as Modettes. Her first novel, The Visitation (published in England in 1996) grew out of a short story of the same name which appeared in New Women’s Fiction 3.

Growing up in a small provincial town in the 1960s, Theresa and Catherine Flynn are two of a large Catholic family. They are devout, and fascinated by christian martyrs, mostly virgin women who have died at the hands of men: “‘Men can’t control themselves,’ Smoking Nana told her granddaughters and she spread her buttocks out more comfortably on the vinyl chair”. Smoking Nana is a protestant who warned her daughter not to marry a Catholic and “turn”, but too late; there is no relief from child-bearing, or suffering at the hands of a male-dominated church. The girls, in the years before boys become an issue, steep themselves in religiosity; they yearn for martyrdom, to experience trances such as those which shot Hildegard and Teresa of Avila to fame, or even a vision would do. Their problem is that they live in New Zealand, not previously noted for its visitations by heavenly beings:

Mrs Flynn covered her ears. “Spare me,” she groaned, “this endless drivel. Why can’t you go off and become something normal, like nurses, for instance? You can’t possibly become martyrs. Don’t be so silly,” she said, looking up from a crinkled pile of silver beet. “This is New Zealand, not Italy. That sort of thing doesn’t go on here”.

Reidy draws a strong streak of irony from this fact: New Zealand largely received its version of Catholicism from Ireland, “black” Ireland at that, with its deep suspicion of European rococo excesses. A visiting Spanish monsignor tries to teach Mrs Flynn how to cook a delicious meatless meal, menestra de acelgas a la extremena. Bringing his own ingredients, including olives, olive oil, garlic, anchovies, black pepper and paprika, he sautés up a treat. Mrs Flynn, suspicious of men who cook, admits it is good and into her recipe book she writes down, “Spud & Vegie Casserole”. She makes it herself, using fat from the basin on the stove because she does not have olive oil and omitting the garlic and paprika.

Reidy joins Christine Johnston, Anne Kennedy and Fiona Farrell in a growing line of Catholic women writers who employ magic or the supernatural to throw into ironic relief the basic pragmatism and lack of imagination of stalwart New Zealanders. To the alarm and disbelief of clergy and laity, Catherine and Theresa have their devotion rewarded by a private visitation from the blessed Virgin Mary, who passes on to them a letter for the Pope as he moves to deliver an ultimatum about birth control. There is much humour to be milked from the situation: the BVM settles down in New Zealand and leads women into new ways of thinking about their faith and dealing with the patriarchy. Perhaps this more imagined and fanciful section does not quite come off as well as the earlier parts within the family circle. Repressive it may have been, but these sections reek of truth: yes, life was like that. The Visitation is a rich and witty novel.

3

If you have enjoyed Linda Burgess’s novels you will also enjoy Bronwyn Tate from the same Otago University Press stable. They share a similar view of the world, and style, although Tate’s work has a deeper, sharper edge than Burgess’s. Her previous publications have been short fiction for radio and magazine. Leaving for Townsville is a sophisticated piece of story-telling, yet easy to follow and rewarding.

Five stories are going on simultaneously. Rick and Hazel are newly separated — at least, Rick has shot through to sort out his life with Hazel which is still important to him, but also to work through a second level of the plot which concerns a traumatic event from the couple’s last year at high school when, with the dramatic death of one of their “gang”, they were all catapulted from rural innocence into the adult corrupted world. A third element is Rick’s life without Hazel as he drives north to Townsville and his relationship with a young pregnant hitchhiker he picks up on the way. Fourth, we meet Hazel without Rick, earning her living by potting, bringing up her children, one disturbed by family upheaval. A fifth strand is the novel Hazel is thumping out on her word processor, a rich and funny story about the outrageous Moxon family:

They live in a flat-roofed fibrolite house, quarter of a mile on either side from its nearest neighbour. A house with the expressionless facade of a quarantine station… And the Moxon sisters have grown up shrouded in the mists of local prejudice, sniggered at behind hands and whispered about before the eddies of their wake have had time to settle. In consequence they are three alone in the world. Except for the imposing Mrs Moxon, who becomes with each year a little less distinguishable from her daughters, as they take on her proportions. Hips like huge circular kapok mattresses which waft and flick from side to side as she walks.

Leaving for Townsville is strong in character. Rick and Hazel are an attractive pair, Rick being particularly well drawn. He is deep and subtle, reminding me of Tina Shaw’s fine creation, Barry, from Birdie. Peripheral characters such as Hazel’s fellow potters, a former lover who hopes to take her over again, Rick’s hitchhiker and her Aussie family are all full of interest and variety. Tate’s evocation of small town life and the growing up of the “gang” is good. The event at the end of summer which triggers the plot and has such an unsettling on them all gives the novel a satisfying and rich depth.

4

Laura Solomon shot out of the blocks after her BA in English from Otago, all systems go; her first novel, Black Light, was praised, if with some bemusement from those who like their novels a little more sedate. “She’s as stroppy as a rock music Riot Girl,” wrote David Eggleton, and that seems a fair opinion. Her photo smoulders off the back cover of Nothing Lasting with a “don’t give me that crap” look. I’m not sure what a Riot Girl is, whether they cause riots, sort them out, or seek them, but Solomon could handle all three.

Many readers have already found the latest novel disturbing. It follows the short and violent career of a psychopathic arsonist, told in 3D and technicolour by the arsonist himself. Pausing briefly to ask myself whether a psychopath could write such a coherent narrative, I soon stop wondering and am propelled along by the pace of it all. Whether it’s attaching sky rockets to rats or burning cats or people, the arsonist is equally proficient. Growing up in a place which sounds rather like Oamaru, our nameless boy has a moronic father and a mother who flips her lid (after years of drunken inertia) by cracking eggs on her scalp and is carted off to the bin. The arsonist feels he has a duty and a calling to set the world afire — not the whole shooting-box but targeting only “those in that parasitic group who undermine the very fabric that our society is made of: the wealthy…”.

Horrible as the subject matter is, Solomon has a right old romp through the brilliant career of this society misfit. As she told a reporter from the Otago University students’ paper Critic on 5 March, “…if you can’t entertain yourself, why are you doing it? It’s great self entertainment”. Here lies the problem many will have with this witty and genuinely creative novel (which also uses the supernatural to good comic effect with the sudden reappearance of the arsonist’s dead parents): where does Solomon stand on the question of her black hero’s anarchy and violence? As a mainly middle-class construct, the novel has been historically rather well-mannered, well-bred and very moral. We know precisely where Jane Austen stands on the morals and behaviour of her characters and bringing them to a proper standard of morality is her chief aim. But as Solomon said to Critic: “The trouble is I keep getting judged by certain standards, but they’re other people’s standards and not mine and they’re not the majority of the population’s. They still haven’t realised that everything’s changed.”

Yes, hard and all as it is to accept, society has changed beyond the reach of many traditional novels and more’s the pity. Solomon is not the sole practitioner in the field: she merely carries to blacker ends a tradition of black realism begun by Katherine Mansfield and Frank Sargeson and carried on more recently by Maurice Gee and by Owen Marshall in his much-criticised story of gratuitous violence, “Coming home in the Dark”, in which it is hard to find any authorial eschewing of the violence.

Solomon, who enjoys “piss-takes of kinds of mentalities”, says she is firmly against the mindset of the arsonist for blaming society, his parents, anyone but himself for his actions. He is forced into it (conveniently overlooking his earlier, pre-arson career as a minor thief and thug):

My thoughts were divided into two opposing teams: on the one hand, impulse, which would have me burn whole villages, towns and cities; and on the other hand, repulsion, which made me sick at the thought of the death that impulse had instigated. Torn between these two armies, I was as helpless as a lamb… I fondled my kerosene tin lovingly. Here it was, my arsenal, my weaponry, my sweet loaded gun.

The arsonist does try to kill himself by burning in an attempt to stave off his future career. But he fails and I think this presents a further problem for the reader’s authorial stance: if the arsonist did blame anyone and everything but himself, then it is hard to see that he would have had a moral code dictating that he save society by destroying himself. Maybe only the literally minded will worry, not Riot Girls who are speeding onto the next novel.

But Solomon is right: it is a grimmer, different society and young men and women can hardly be expected to embrace life with the alacrity shown by my generation. We have fucked things up for them. For the young life is all a black dance on the edge of the abyss and very properly Laura Solomon reflects current social anarchy. She carries boldly on where Mansfield broke off, choosing not to finish “A Married Man’s Story” rather than face (and I am guessing here) its awful ramifications. Riot Girls do not flinch.

Heather Murray is a Dunedin writer and critic.

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