Journeys and sympathies, Anna Jackson

Home Boys
Bernard Beckett
Longacre Press, $18.95,
ISBN 1877135887

Lin and the Red Stranger
Ken Catran
Random House, $16.95,
ISBN 1869415779

Tiggie Tompson’s Longest Journey
Tessa Duder
Penguin, $16.95,
ISBN 0143318128

 

Finding myself questioning the whole genre of young adult fiction in a previous review (“Why Bother”, New Zealand Books, June 2003), I suggested if we were going to assign books to young adults to read, we might as well not bother with fiction but get some history or philosophy into them. Or, at the very least, introduce them to some good science fiction, which would similarly raise questions about relative values and the systems we live by.

Home Boys and Lin and the Red Stranger both do exactly that, as successfully as the best science fiction and with the added advantage of introducing readers to some important aspects of New Zealand history. Home Boys is set in the period after World War II when “needy” children were relocated by the British Government in the colonies. Lin and the Red Stranger is set in the gold-mining era, telling the parallel stories of a Chinese girl and a young Irish man. But not only are these novels informative, they both offer such well-paced and compelling narratives that even readers assigned these books at school are likely to find themselves enjoying them. Tiggie Tompson’s Longest Journey is set in contemporary New Zealand and Australia, and makes, I think, an unconvincing attempt at introducing moral issues. However, it is not a book which will need to be assigned by teachers. Readers of the Tiggie Tompson series, like readers of the earlier Alex series, will be looking out for this novel, wanting to find out what happened to Tiggie Tompson next.

I want to know what happens next to the characters in Home Boys. The novel ends unresolved with the three young adults who become the central protagonists hitching a lift out of the bush they’ve escaped to, but with no clear destination or future ahead. There is no sense that the romance between Colin and Veronica is something they can build a future on. They are too young, and Veronica’s past already too complicated for that. Nevertheless, it has been as real as any romance, and the more deeply felt for being so obliquely expressed.

Just as the friendship between the two boys, Colin and Dougal, is made less through words than through their shared stumbling and tracking through the bush (though killing and carrying about the dead sheep certainly contributes), the romance between Veronica and Colin seems most real when she joins the two boys on their second hike. The made-up cave she promises to take them to, a cave they all know doesn’t really exist, even as they follow her leadership through the bush, seems a symbol of something like romance which is  all the more potent for being so ambiguous. It’s a nice touch that Veronica does, to her own surprise, come across a real cave after all.

For a realist novel – wonderfully convincing in its depiction of East London life, life on a grim New Zealand farm, the business of carting around a dying sheep and so on – Home Boys does have surprisingly resonant symbolic touches and a kind of dream-like structure. This dream-like quality is reflected in the plot of the novel with Colin having apparently prophetic dreams, which to a certain extent seem to direct what happens to him. Colin’s first dream in the novel is more of a memory, a memory he relives as he falls asleep. But later in the novel he seems to dream the future – dreaming about Dougal before he meets him, dreaming part of Dougal’s own story that he keeps secret from Colin, and apparently dreaming his way down to the small seaside community where they meet up with Veronica’s family and with Gino (known to Colin from his past life in England). Colin’s belief in the reality of his dreams is supported by Mary’s acceptance of him as a kind of seer. Mary is the matriarch of the seaside community, which to a local reader seems to be Maori, although Colin as an East Londoner doesn’t have the frame of reference to be able to identify it as such. Part of the strength of this novel is how convincingly Beckett maintains Colin’s perspective on events and people, despite the use of a third-person narrative which usefully avoids the difficulty of finding an authentic voice, or purpose, for Colin as narrator.

Ken Catran uses a similar third-person limited perspective in Lin and the Red Stranger, although he shifts between the two central points of view, following in turn the Chinese girl Lin and the “red stranger”, Irish miner Declan. Declan’s first impression of the Chinese miners and their “cursed jabber” and Lin’s first impression of the “Big Nose” faces (“tall, ugly and clad in garments of thick, coarse cloth”) nicely set up the clash of two cultures the novel explores. Catran writes with compelling conviction from each point of view. The relationship between Lin and Master Choy, who has bought Lin from her parents to work as a maidservant, is beautifully evoked. New Zealand readers might find it hard to accept Lin’s sense that “it was the proper thing” for her father to sell the “useless mouth” which, as a daughter, she represented. Yet Catran convincingly portrays the way in which Lin’s new relationship with her master and his son allows her to belong to them “as family” so that the adoption by Master Choy of Lin into the family at the end of the novel makes for a genuinely felt happy ending.

The use of the third-person limited perspective is further complicated here by the fact that Lin speaks no English. Most of the time this is not a problem, as we understand the conversations between Lin and the other Chinese characters are translations from their own language, as, in a sense, the narrative itself is a translation from the language Lin would be thinking in. So, when the narrative takes Lin’s point of view, the Pakeha miners become incomprehensible, or comprehensible only in terms of tone: “[he] called something after her. It sounded rude.”

Catran isn’t consistent, however, in maintaining this perspective. Quite often he gives the English even as he explains that Lin doesn’t understand the words: “‘Tis good peppermint. Take some and be eased.’ She did not understand a word and only stared at him.” This is one of the exchanges between Lin and Declan and, as we have been following events from his point of view as well, it seems natural in a way also to have his words: “‘Come on, tis the guiding Saint Christopher I am, not a Gombeen.’” Elsewhere, when we are given the speeches of the policemen, it is for the purpose of highlighting problems of translation. “‘So ye are the Chinese, and a fine set of bluidy rascals ye look!’” is translated as “‘The sergeant says we are fresh-made, blood-covered and crafty.’”

The novel as a whole is concerned with issues of understanding between different people. The cultural differences between the Chinese miners and miners of Pakeha and British backgrounds are explored in a way which is sympathetic and respectful of both cultures, while clearly showing how the frugal, law-abiding, self-contained Chinese community would clash with the mainstream mining culture of big spend-ups, loose morals, mistrust of authority and easy camaraderie. But real connections can take place between people of different cultures, just as enmities within the communities can be broken down or defused with sympathy and tact. At the end of the novel, we have Lin thinking: “I still do not really understand these White Devils … but we laughed together and that’s something.”  And she turns to her own people, to make things right with the leader, Hing: “losing a little of the reward was well worth the look on Hing’s face. And for once he had nothing to say.” Although the novel is set in the goldfields, money is shown to be less important than human relationships, and language less important to human relationships than kindness, sympathy and laughter.

Sympathy is what the Tiggie Tompson novels are also based on. Readers sympathise with the “fat girl” Tiggie Tompson, as she appears at the beginning of the series, while coming to realise that even the apparently glamorous stars of the soap opera Tiggie gets a part in have their problems too. Tiggie Tompson’s Longest Journey is the third book recording Tiggie’s adventures, and by now she has left behind her past as a fat girl and is starring as the lead character in Eliza, a Victorian costume drama.

The dazzling trajectory from fat girl to glamorous star has already been completed before this novel begins, and Tiggie is now primarily concerned with dealing with other people’s problems. For much of the novel she is taken up by her mother’s pregnancy, then when the baby is born there is the anxiety over a heart problem and the need for surgery. She is also concerned about her friend Vita, who discharges herself from the Australian clinic where she is being treated for anorexia, and maintains only limited communication with her family as she tries to deal with her difficulties by herself. Tiggie’s concern for her mother and for Vita’s mother is to be welcomed, I suppose, yet she seems to use it as a way of getting at Vita, as she emails her to compare her problems with the real problems adults face. “Sorry if this sounds like a guilt-trip,” Tiggie writes in one email – and she is right, that is exactly what it sounds like.

Tiggie’s new-found maturity seems to get in the way of sympathy and of a real relationship with the girl she still insists is “her bestest friend ever”. The novel ends with Vita’s surprise appearance at the wrap party for the film, a happy ending for Tiggie, and, it seems to me, given the tone of Tiggie’s emails to Vita, a remarkable act on Vita’s part. Personally I’d like to have had Vita’s continuing story, which could have been explored with more sympathy than Tiggie is prepared to offer.

 

Anna Jackson teaches in the School of English, Film, Theatre and Media Studies at Victoria University of Wellington.

 

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Posted in Fiction, Literature, Review and Young adults
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