Heart of the matter, Catharina van Bohemen

The Heart Sutra
Caren Wilton
University of Otago Press, $29.95,
ISBN 187727660X

Bosom Buddies: Women’s Stories about Friendship, Love and Life 
[Editor not given]
Black Swan/Random House, $26.95,
ISBN 1869415842

Got the T-shirt? Now buy the book. Bosom Buddies: Women’s Stories about Friendship, Life and Love is an assortment of short fiction by “top” local women writers as well as a clutch from abroad. It is the collaboration of the publisher and the Breast Cancer Research Trust. But according to booksellers, short stories are the hardest books to “move”, making this perhaps a risky fundraiser. A paragraph inside the cover states that New Zealand women have the highest rates of breast cancer in the world, that the writers have donated their work, and that for every copy of Bosom Buddies sold, $3.00 will go to breast cancer research.

Bosom Buddies filled me with foreboding before I started reading. Perhaps it was the title with its facile conjunction of friendship and health, or that tired ad word “top” for writers. Perhaps it was the back cover with its carefully chosen excerpts: “It wouldn’t be bad [thinks the narrator in “Mother Maryam”] having another wife around to shoulder the burden of the house, kids, Rick.” This story begins with the arresting image of two velvet-veiled Muslim women heaving flour at a supermarket. They inspire an affluent, depressed wife to import such a woman for “Ricky Dicky”, the consequences of which result in her hospitalisation. Familiar territory and treatment in much women’s writing – this burden of house, children and husband.

The blurb says these “moving, entertaining” stories are about “us” – implying that they will be read by middle-aged, middle-class, misunderstood women suffering from homes, horrid children and husbands who don’t care what colour we paint our rooms (“Pearl Lustre”), who tell us what to think (“Yellow Silk Jacket”), or who make us sick when we smell their breath (“Real Pregnancy Tales”). The solution is to reduce or infantalise men because they ignore or incarcerate us. In “Vengeance”, Judy returns to work as a receptionist for the local doctor. She’s smart and efficient and she knows he has always liked her breasts. The story ends with her “cradling him against her breasts and brushing his greyed hair off his forehead”. He has also always had dental problems, and while she comforts him, his teeth repose on the bedside table: he has “perfect, baby gums”.

It was a relief to come across Eirlys Hunter’s “One out of the Box” – about a woman who walks the Milford Track. I liked the story because it was set outside, and although the writing occasionally slipped into cliché, there is no hiding her delight in “everything glittering”.

Some stories allude to breast cancer. “Esther to Fanny” is an elegant elegy for the mother of a university teacher who interweaves Fanny Burney’s letter about her mastectomy with her own mother’s suffering and death. This story is more evocative than the melodramatic “Sharing with the Shoemakers” in which three sisters share a weekend and unravel tawdry lives.

A woman’s life, according to these stories, is essentially miserable. Her emotional terrain is grief, guilt, loss, longing, alienation, generally unleavened by humour or kindness, although “Miss Mackintosh” is quietly redemptive. Bosom Buddies is like a sampler biscuit tin – there should be something for everyone – and the money goes to a good cause – but I was often frustrated. Powerful stories like Rachel Seifert’s “Reach” and Marilyn Duckworth’s “Not Wanted on Voyage” are trapped beside others where, too frequently, the writing plods towards joyless or glib resolution.

Webster’s dictionary defines a sutra as a “set of rules” and derives its origins from the Sanskrit verb “to sew”. Caren Wilton’s first collection of short stories has the feel of a tapestry in which the “rules” of the heart are explored in a variety of physical and emotional locales. She has a natural short story writer’s skill in evoking intimate moments, and the best of the stories contain epiphanies, which quietly transform a character’s life: in “Shenandoah River”, the metaphor of pruning roses symbolises not just a rigorous personal catharsis, but also an acceptance of new and transformative relationships.

The characters in these stories are young women whose temporary occupation of flats reflects emotional transience. They desire acceptance, intimacy, understanding, but they don’t always experience it. They have sex with strangers (“City of Angels”, ”Like Silver”), but their eyes are  “sad” or they feel “numb” all the time, compelled to do “bad things to break through it.”

“Kindred Spirits” is the darkest story. Jody is 13, on holiday with her mother in a dirty bach in Taupo. She is lonely and befriends Mike, old enough to be her father, who says she can visit any time. Her childishness is made obvious by her vocabulary, puppy fat and confused adoration. One day he rapes her. He presses his “thick tongue” into her mouth and pushes inside her. Afterwards, he gets up and cracks an egg. He doesn’t look at her. The last image of Jody is of her curled on her mother’s bed, one hand under the pillow grasping her nightie, wishing she was like the dissolving tigers in Little Black Sambo.

Some of the older girls explore sexual identity. In “Red Gladioli”, Ros hopes that having a relationship with a woman will strengthen her friendship with Sarah, who has gone flatting with some lesbians. She meets tough, cool Linda who takes her home and pushes her tongue in Ros’s mouth, “hard”. This story, at least, is funny. The flatmates don’t have great manners; they exclude Ros from their conversations (about patriarchy) at dinner and mimic her afterwards. Caren Wilton has a very good ear for dialogue. She captures tone and nuance well, whether it’s the “womyn’s” or the main character’s naive self-consciousness. In “Arohanui”, Miranda answers an advertisement without realising it’s a lesbian flat. She fears discovery both of her straightness and her misery over her boyfriend’s absence, but she’s also bewitched by her flatmates’ habits. One day letters arrive from the boyfriend and the girls are delighted:

“You know what Bunny thought, don’t you? She thought you were straight. I hope you don’t mind me saying that. But I said, no … She’s a dyke all right. I can tell by her eyes. I’m really intuitive like that. And I’m right! You’ve got this secret woman waiting for you in London!”

 

The strength of Wilton’s work comes from her ability to present her characters without moralising. They are brave and solipsistic, they are observant, they are still growing up – their names are often girly like Jody or Janey, or fragments like Mel, Ros, Lou. Their habitual sadness is captured by carefully selected observations: “after your mother has died, no one will knit like her again, or write, or make fish pie.” I look forward to more work on a larger canvas – the girls need to grow up and the boys to stop crying.

 

Catharina van Bohemen is an Auckland reviewer.

 

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Posted in Fiction, Literature, Review and Short stories
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