Adolescents and other animals, Kate De Goldi

Dog Breath and other stories
Norman Bilbrough
Mallinson Rendel, $15.95,
ISBN 0 908783 30 2

Raindancer
Vivienne Joseph
Mallinson Rendel, $15.95,
ISBN 0 908783 34 5

Go Horatio!
Pat Quinn
Scholastic, $11.95,
ISBN 1 86943 404 8

Comes Naturally
David Hill
Mallinson Rendel, $15.95,
ISBN 0 908783 35 3

Prevailing publishing wisdom has it that story collections don’t sell, and story collections for teenagers sell even more poorly. Mallinson Rendel either don’t buy the notion, or are ignoring it and, happily, can tell themselves now that their decision to publish Dog Breath and Bob Kerr’s excellent Strange Tales from the Mall – both for older readers – was a sound one: both books were short-listed in this year’s New Zealand Post Children’s Book Awards and should garner deservedly wide readerships.

Bilbrough is a deft craftsman of shorter fiction, whose whittled, pellucid style and almost bald cadences belie characters and storylines of considerable psychological and social depth. Winningly simple on the surface – and perfect therefore for a resistant, (male), high school readership –the substance of each story is more often found behind the lines and each survives – and deserves – several readings.  The description, for instance, of a new baby brother’s arrival home in “Kiss the Baby” takes the reader beyond mere sibling rivalry:

It had a hectic face, small ruthless eyes sunk into folds of fat, a lipless, cunning mouth and a head so bald I could’ve sworn it was shaved each day.

‘Isn’t he cute,’ Mum said, lugging him into the sunporch.

‘Jeez Mum, did he fall off the back of a truck?’

Bilbrough’s protagonists are young, mostly male and anxious – for identity, for connection, for security and approbation. They inhabit painfully – and comically – familiar domestic and social landscapes, and wrestle with the perennial adolescent problems: sibling irritation, first kiss, suppurating acne, peer approval, parental dorkishness, money, responsibility, sex and sex and sex.  But Bilbrough serves up his Petes and Matts and Bretts and their preoccupations with sly drollery and such a light hand that the reader is more likely to grin than sweat – an experience seized on after so much of the heaving melo-drama in the Young Adult genre.

He is especially strong on intra-familial relationships, drawing late-20th century parental frailties with disarming accuracy – none of the paper-thin caricatures peopling much adolescent fiction. These are real people – good and venal, useless and quietly heroic – and it is a 90s domestic landscape: struggling mothers, absent fathers, parents beleagured by unemployment and insecurity, disappointed in love and life and children, but all struggling to communicate, to cross the generational divide.

Bilbrough also hooks his target audience quite beautifully; he does great beginnings:

When I hit fifteen the single hair on my chest died.  I was stunned.  Maybe it was the green-house effect.

Or

The day I turned fourteen, I was sitting in McDonald’s trying to make my coke last two hours, and hoping that Mum had made me a cake so full of cream that it squirted up my nostrils when I bit into it. Then an old guy pressed his mouth against the glass and made a big wet smeary kiss.

‘Come off it, Dad,’ I mouthed.

Or

There were plenty of reasons why I killed Hubert, but none of them to do with Hubert. I was throwing bricks off the garage roof, and he got in the way.

There is the odd anachronism (I’ve never been persuaded that NZ Dads call their sons, “Son”) and a couple of the stories are less convincing – in a decidedly realist collection the title story stretches credulity somewhat.  But this is not a collection which is only as strong as its weakest link. The cumulative effect of the stories is a strong and lasting one; the ambience of the adolescent world, at home and abroad, is well-wrought; the narrative voices are persuasive; but what lingers, finally, is the scattered, baffled, vulnerable, sweet and comic beastie that is the teenage boy.

2

A bad drought, a threatened family farm, a 90s girl struggling with loss (the farm) and gain (an anticipated sibling) and planning supernatural assistance to bring the much-needed rain – Vivienne Joseph’s first novel for junior readers has promising ingredients, but is, finally, an oddly limp and unengaging read.

Adult distress at the reality of drought, the muck of birth and animals, these might have made for a vivid and muscular read but Joseph’s rural world under threat is a rather anodyne one. The adults are desperately nice, one-dimensional characters who drop kindly platitudes rather than the laden, cryptic words of people under stress.  Asha, the young protagonist, is a good girl, an aspiring farmer who provides a gender reversal that feels rather more like a good example to the reader than a convincing character drive.

Much of Raindancer has a contrived and earnest feel – as if this is the kind of story and prose the writer guesses junior readers might want to read (complete with lessons for good living); there is not the sense of a story whose telling is insisted upon, the rhythm and pitch of a singular narrative voice that demands the reader listen.

There are some nice touches and fresh images – the communal sense of a rural school is well observed; a wizard who e-mails is refreshing; boys laugh like bush turkeys, clouds are like pavlovas; the dessicated countryside is very present. But Joseph tells too much rather than showing, and the cumulative effect is of Asha’s movements and thoughts proceeding at a pace nearly as slow as real time.

The two moments when the narrative lifts off give a clue to the book’s possible heart: Asha’s father rails in front of the family at the burnt grass and hungry cattle and something of the despair drought brings is finally suggested. Near the story’s end Asha, under instruction from the Christchurch Wizard, performs her raindance:

Black robe swirling like wings flying. Spinning, spinning. Around and around, the world of paddocks, trees, stones and sky wheeling about like the picture painted on a spinning top …

It’s a pity that the mostly sustained intensity of the final two chapters eludes Joseph for the bulk of her narrative; the reader is left at the finish with the feeling that the novel’s whole is very much less than the potential sum of its parts.

3

Pat Quinn’s two most recent junior novels have been inexplicable omissions from the last two New Zealand Post Book Award shortlists. Go Horatio!, and its prequel, Too Chicken, exemplify all that is good about Quinn’s writing – perfectly-paced stories which complete their curves within the confines of the publishing format’s word-limit; shaded characterisations, snappy dialogue, quirky but plausible plot-lines; a social landscape that is securely of “our place” but not flag-waving. Above all, Quinn has a distinctive, insistent fictional voice that transcends what too often seems like a junior fiction style and tempo – one brought about by the publishing confines of the medium.

Amy, deprived of a dog, trains her ragged moggy on a proto-Wonder Dog course – a splendid comic device ripe with possibility which Quinn exploits with hilarious results; meanwhile her brother and his friend scare up runaway Helena by means of the Internet Chat Page. The two plot-lines dovetail nicely to provide double crises for Amy and her brother – the latter approaching his with a degree more self-interest than his tender-hearted sister.

Quinn achieves it all with a light but highly skilled touch, not a false note in the mix. And the real stuff is clearly delineated – Helena, the waif in Amy’s backyard looks “like someone who’d run through a clothing factory with their arms stretched out, gathering clothes as they ran.” But, more importantly, she is a stray like Horatio and is drawn to the cat and Amy’s nutty plans for him. Amy, on the other hand, is plagued – after Helena is ejected by Mark – by dreams of Helena, “asleep under a big black fur rug with large yellow spots, then the spots turned into holes and the black fur fell apart. Helena kept saying, ‘I’m fine, I’m fine,’ but her skin went white then blue with cold”.

It’s all okay in the end of course, and Quinn’s tempo and narrative voice are persuasive enough to stop the reader from cavilling about runaways going unnoticed in a backyard or the unlikeliness of getting a cat to jump on command. Horatio himself, no mere device but a key player in the cast, looms large:

His evil yellow eyes kept staring at me. On one side of his wide face a pale grey scar ran through the dense black fur … I saw that his left ear had a big chunk chewed out of it. He had a solid powerful neck and broad muscular shoulders. His thick black tail swept back and forth on the dusty concrete floor.

It’s a romp, and a thoroughly enjoyable one – an excellent book for solo and class reading, an automatic purchase for any local fiction aficionado, despite having been passed over for award glory.

4

Comes Naturally is, I think, the twelfth novel for children from David Hill in some eight years. Since his first, the popularly and critically acclaimed See ya, Simon, Hill has been producing at a galloping rate throughout the 90s. There is a large audience hungry for his work – adults ecstatic to find high quality work for the 8-14 age group, and particularly boys; the kids themselves, lucky enough to have a writer with a mainline to their world, providing them with funny, true stories about them, their preoccupations, their “place”. (“David Hill rules” is something I have heard again and again from intermediate children, avid and reluctant readers.)

I’ve long been an admirer of Hill’s work – the arrival of his distinctive fictional voice signalled a leap foward in New Zealand writing for junior and intermediate readers. And in the time since See ya, Simon, Hill’s prose has become increasingly taut, his delivery increasingly sparing; characterisation, dialogue and plot-lines are always plausible, authentic and acute. Hill’s voice has remained distinctive, the perfect accompaniment to the pubescent boy’s eager and wary eye on the world which lies at the heart of his work.

Hill is, too, the most humane of childen’s writers – conveying adult and childish frailty with sensitivity, never settling for easy fictional solutions, exploring in particular the tricky territory between irritated child and irritating parent with delicacy and great humour, moving the young reader (and admiring adult) towards those seminal learning moments which, like all good children’s fiction, undidactically signpost the road to maturity.

Comes Naturally is as accomplished a piece as the best of Hill’s work. The subject – conservation – is of the moment and the author is clearly conveying its importance, but he ensures too that the complexities of ecology-versus-business are recognised. There is much for the young (and older) reader to learn about wetlands natural life. The plot and character development are exactly paced, the dialogue sharp and funny; the descriptive passages are nicely observed and never stretch the patience of the target readership. The resolution is pleasing but not gratuitous – Hill has always been good at providing hopeful endings in tandem with the understanding that not all problems have ready solutions.

It is, in other words, vintage Hill – though I do have a reservation. There are quite strong echoes of Hill’s other work. The “gorgeous” Peta Gillam, for instance (whose inner failings are revealed to bring into focus the “non-gorgeous” but more morally substantial Amy Preston) has had outings – under other names – in several Hill books. Similarly the spunky surfie, Matt, whose feet are clayish (though not fatally) is drawn from an earlier prototype. Even the devices by which youngsters bring recalcitrant adults to heel or adults reveal vulnerabilities that show children’s precipitate judgement, are familiar ostinatos.

Hill has made the intermediate fiction form his own – he works masterfully within its confines – the limited word length, the subject and circumscribed language. But he’s averaging two books a year currently and even the ardent fan I count myself might wonder about the perils of such a rate.

On the other hand, I know too that as each new Hill title hits the shelves, I seize it with relief – my son will love it, as he loves no other writer’s work. It will be a birthday present – as Comes Naturally has been – for a dozen different childen, many of whom have failed to bond with other writers. The recurrence of authorial motifs doesn’t bother those readers; they’re only interested, like their teachers and parents, in when the next inimitable Hill cocktail will be available.

Kate De Goldi’s novel, Closed Stranger, is due out from Penguin later this year.

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Posted in Children, Literature, Review and Young adults
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