Small Holes in the Silence: Short Stories
Patricia Grace’s new collection, Small Holes in the Silence: Short Stories (her fifth), appeared last year. This was 31 years after Waiariki burst on the scene to inevitable comparisons with Witi Ihimaera’s Pounamu, Pounamu (1972), though in its freshness, originality and accomplishment that first collection of Grace’s might equally have been compared to Janet Frame’s The Lagoon (1952). Over the next 20 years Grace regularly alternated novels with collections of short stories: Mutuwhenua: The Moon Sleeps (1978) and The Dream Sleepers and Other Stories (1980); Potiki (1986) and Electric City and Other Stories (1987); Cousins (1992) and The Sky People (1994). For the last 10 years, she has seemed to focus more on the novel, producing Baby No-eyes (1998), Dogside Story (2001) and Tu (2004), but this collection, her largest and most varied to date, shows that during that time she has not been neglecting the short story.
Grace’s first four collections form a coherent body of work, expressing recurring aims and concerns. Rachel Nunns said of the early stories that they “inform readers at an emotional, imaginative level with the sense of what it means to be a Maori”, and that quality is apparent right through the collections. The stories focus on Maori life as subjectively experienced, not as conceptually analysed. Some attempt to give a subjective sense of inward states that are at the same time personal and universal within an ethnic and often a gendered framework. The most striking of these is “Between Earth and Sky”, with its evocation of the narrator’s curve of emotion on the day of giving birth, an experience at once universally female and intensely personal within a social situation and an implicit mythic framework that are distinctively Maori. Other stories focus primarily on the world out there, but as seen subjectively from within a single consciousness – “Valley”, for instance, a prose pastoral evoking the school year in a rural Northland school as seen by a new Maori woman teacher.
Taken as a group, the stories present a full range of Maori experience. The elders are there: the admirable Waimarie of the story of that title, courageously and unselfishly carrying out her responsibility to whanau and iwi; the old man of “Journey” unsuccessfully attempting to save his whanau’s land from Pakeha “development and planning”. By contrast, there is the dead “big man” of “Flower Girls”, with his mana evident at his tangi, but with his emotionally maimed and sexually abused daughters providing a different, unspoken “memorial”. The interrelated, autobiographical Mereana stories, found in all three of these collections (and originally intended to be parts of a novel) vividly evoke aspects of growing up Maori in the 1940s – the family and community relationships, the games, the fishing and food-gathering, the relationship to the introduced institutions of school, Church, and Hollywood films – and, in “Going for the Bread”, the experience of racial bullying.
Such stories as “Electric City”, “Letters from Whetu” and “The Hills” present the experience of Maori adolescents and young in the New Zealand of the 1970s and 1980s, evoking the pull on them, in a society dominated by Pakehas, between school and the possibilities of work and between a low income and the temptations of a consumer society. The stories give a sense of human potentiality but also of the social conditions, including racial attitudes, that may inhibit or even prevent its development. Several of the stories in The Sky People deal with the title group, characterised in the epigraph as “those crazy from the wind or what they breathe, those crazy from water or what they drink, those crazy from darkness or depression”: the schizoid, creative narrator of the title story, -the abused daughters in “Flower Girls”, the old alcoholic in “The Day of the Egg”, the institutionalised in “Chain of Events”, the disabled and angry narrator of “Cardigan of Roses”. Grace presents them all with empathy, showing how they need love and different patterns of life to suit their atypical conditions.
Almost half of the stories in Grace’s collections are in the first-person, with a great range of narrators and styles, from the child of “Holiday” to the young man of “The Wall” and the young woman of “Parade”, the wife of “Kahawai’ and husband of “Waiariki”, the old man of “Huria’s Rock”. For each narrator and occasion Grace chooses the appropriate language. The register-shifting epistolary style of “Letters from Whetu” is very different from the Janet Frame-ish style of the narrator of “The Sky People”, and both are entirely different from the humorously self-deprecating stream-of-consciousness dialogue with herself of the wife in “Mirrors”. “A Way of Talking”, which turns on register (a well-placed “whom” in the dialogue has a devastating effect), shows clearly right from the start Grace’s linguistic mastery both in the dialogue and in the narrative prose.
In these volumes Grace also explores other methods for different purposes: the shifting third-person point of view in the Mereana stories, restricted to the vision and idiom of the children; the counterpointing of two quite different third-person points of view in “Chocolate Cake Raffle”; the restriction to dialogue and the report from the outside to suggest character in “Waimarie”; the ironic vernacular omniscience in the clever satire “Ngati Kangaru”. Most striking is the close limitation of the third-person point of view to one character, with the inner life depicted by free indirect discourse, powerfully evoking very different characters with different idioms in “Journey” and “Hospital”.
Coming after a 12-year break, Small Holes in the Silence has some continuities with the earlier collections but also some significant differences. It announces its difference with its title, taken from Hone Tuwhare’s “Rain” (the book is dedicated to Tuwhare) rather than from one of the stories as in the previous four collections. (That said, the title of the new collection does give an effective visual-aural image for the types of story that Grace has always written.) There are no more Mereana stories, no stories situated in children’s consciousnesses. But there are stories that relate to some of the major groups in the first four collections. Although the narrative method is different, “Busy Lines” follows on from earlier stories such as “At the River” and “Transition” in which the main character goes with dignity and acceptance towards death. This picture of the last days of a lone woman whose husband, friends, and even most of her electrical appliances have all died, is told through a sympathetic, inward and poetic third-person point of view limited to the unnamed woman’s consciousness.
“Manners Street Blues” relates to “The Hills” in that it is a young Maori’s account of being brutalised by the police, except that this time the narrator is not a male high school student but a woman university student who has protested at the roughing up of her cousin. “Headlights” recalls earlier stories of unhappily married women such as those in “Geranium” and “The Day of the Egg”, but is a stronger story. It almost imprisons the reader within the embittered, depressed consciousness of a woman deserted by her husband and left with three small children. The limited third-person point of view allows us to see only into her mind (with bits of her interior monologue). We grasp that she sees her eight-year-old daughter only as “like a spider who would pounce on me, entangle me in all its legs, squeeze the life out of me”, and her five-year-old twin boys as objects that “had come out of her bloody, taking all of her entrails with them, turning her inside out, two heads screaming”. Her attempt to throw out “the left behind traces of her husband who had made a quick getaway” leads to her packing her own clothes and fleeing from the house without telling the children, driving north feeling “there was nothing behind her. There was nothing back there at all.” We see enough of her state to see why she does this, but we see enough of the obviously terrorised children to feel the sympathy for them that she lacks.
“Eben”, the strongest story in the volume, is a powerful addition to the stories of the “sky people”. It is the life story of “Crooked Eben”, the misshapen, dumb busker of “Parutai” (Porirua), who “danced like a pile-driving machine” and gave wordless vocal accompaniments to his taped dance music that sounded like “animal bellowings alternated with seagull screams and the hootings of owls”. As Maurice Gee’s Blindsight is a narrative explanation of how his “bucket man” came to that state, so this story gives an account of how “Crooked Eben” came to be. The narrative is an oral-tinged, third-person omniscient account by a narrator who knows not only the stories people told to try to explain Eben but also what “actually happened”. It is a moving tale of a child misshapen from birth, born to a 16-year-old unmarried Christian girl in a home for fallen women. Eben is rejected by his mother, raised in an orphanage, and then stolen from there by Pani, who had been brought up there herself, and who made it her purpose in life to take care of him and to bring out the happiness that he could express by his “square smile” and the “pins of light in his eyes”. That life is traced through to Pani’s death, to Eben’s ensuing busking “career”, and finally to his death, with a funeral provided by money that Pani had left. As a final irony, his crooked body is straightened and his square smile made conventionally curved by the undertaker and his apprentice.
The other stories in the volume move off in different directions, interesting in themselves but not as strong as these four, not as inward and emotionally involving. Five brief stories that tell of the encounters of a retired nurse who plays the role of a part-time street person in order to observe and meet people are more anecdotes and vignettes than fully realised stories. Two stories set in Russia, “Doll Woman” and “To Russia with Love”, raise the question of “all that we cannot know of each other”. A New Zealand tourist muses on a woman seen on the street and sympathised with but not understood. A Russian woman (who has hosted New Zealand tourists) ponders the New Zealand calendars they have sent her but “cannot truly imagine … where the people live, or how they live, in such a faraway place” and projects onto the pictures of the birds the sense of danger and uncertainty that she has experienced in her own life. A different kind of ironic projection takes place in “Moon Story” and “Flash Story”, which translate the traditional tales of Rona and the moon and of Tuwhaki into contemporary idiom and concepts.
Other stories focus more on narrative, less on character and emotion. There are three first-person yarns involving the odd, the weird, or the supernatural. “Stepping Out” has a great grandfather with two sets of teeth and a second self that could be seen leaving his body at his death. In “Stealing Mark”, Mark is seen by three different sets of relations as baby, as Alzheimer’s sufferer and as corpse. In “Wendel”, the narrator is convinced that the carved koruru on the new wharenui is really Wendel, the escaped bank robber. There are also off-beat “love stories”. The title story has the hapless, rootless Willie falling in love with a carved beautiful young woman and learning from her his whakapapa. “Pa Wars” shows the narrator, self-described as “hypercritical, a bitch from way back”, searching for a “known donor” to be biological father to the child she wants. In “The Kiss”, a genial, romantic, rather thick Maori rugby player in Italy mistakes the shooting of a film for real life and falls for the actress. “Tommy” describes how the interplay of jealousy, envy and cultural ignorance brings a humorous contretemps at a tangi. All of these yarns and stories have a realised narrative voice and strong narrative interest, but all stay close to the surface.
The variety of narrative modes in Small Holes in the Silence displays Grace’s mastery and versatility, but this variety comes at the cost of the coherence, the sheer sustained emotional engagement of the earlier collections.
Lawrence Jones, Emeritus Professor of English at the University of Otago, is working on a book on Maurice Gee and an edition of the late O E Middleton’s short stories.
Patricia Grace is the 2008 laureate of the biennial Neustadt International Prize for Literature.