Wild threads of imagination, Joan de Hamel

The Unquiet
Carolyn McCurdie
Longacre, $16.95,
ISBN 1877361402

Aim High 
David Hill
Mallinson Rendel, $17.00,
ISBN 0958262624

Frog Whistle Mine 
Des Hunt
HarperCollins, $16.99,
ISBN 1869505956

Lizzie, Love 
Brenda Delamain
Longacre, $16.99,
ISBN 1877361399

Shooting the Moon 
V M Jones
HarperCollins, $18.99,
ISBN 1869506219

Carolyn McCurdie, in her first novel The Unquiet, weaves an intricate story. Occasionally, I lost the thread. Nevertheless, an astonishingly beautiful and original pattern emerged. It seems that the quiet of the spinning planets used to keep the Unquiet in place. But Man has been violating the planet Earth with noise and ugliness and destruction. The Unquiet is about to invade its third victim, New Zealand. Here it will be the task of children to destroy the enemy.

Tansy is told she has been chosen “because of what you know about quietness”. She must have some inner core of quietness, but is presented as an aggressive child with “spitty, punchy moods”. Her home seems to be a battleground, with Dad usually away and Mum either effusive or evasive. Tansy hates and kicks, or wants to kick, everyone, even Anaru. He is another special child, chosen because of his knowledge of Maori myths.

McCurdie’s imagination is well served by her vocabulary, which describes things invisible: the footmarks of shadows, the swallowing up of brightness, the nightmare of nothingness. Quietness is “like the scent of flowers”. Silence is “like snow under moonlight”. Tansy and Anaru leave their bodies neatly folded and exist as shadows. They slide into a pool, seeing with shadow eyes. They find the skeleton of Maui and talk to him. I wonder how Maori readers react to these additions to the Maui legend and to Tansy stealing his jaw-bone. Anaru knows how to fish, and Tansy has learnt the strength of silence. Together, mirroring the Maori legend, they defeat the Unquiet. This description, and the final paragraph of the book, are beautiful and convincing examples of McCurdie “spinning the wild thread of imagination”.

Aim High by David Hill is about the “unquiet” of Neale Jury’s everyday life. His sport is archery; his problem, an uncontrolled temper. Neale realises that it was after his father left home and remarried that he “just got angry. Angrier, anyway”. His archery coach warns him about his temper: “ ‘Archery is discipline, not just a sport.’ ” We readers are disciplined into the vocabulary of archery, coached by Hill.

Kane Sutton shoots with a rifle, despises archery, and challenges Neale to a shoot-out. Kane’s monosyllabic father dumps the boys in the hills. Suddenly:

[B]eneath the rough grass and scrub covering the slope opposite, a giant seemed to be struggling … . A wave went buckling and bending down the slope above the biggest slip. It sped through the solid earth like a sea rushing for the shore.

 

Descriptive passages such as this contrast with the tightly written narrative and the minimal, mostly grunted, conversations. Still at loggerheads, the boys take to the bush. Only Kane knows any bush craft, taught by his father who “knows crap-all else”. Then Kane is severely injured. Neale soldiers on alone. His state of mind changes under stress: “It wouldn’t be right to lose his temper in the calm, quiet bush.” He stumbles towards rescue and, almost imperceptibly, adulthood. Later, in hospital, Kane’s father grips Neale’s hand. “ ‘I don’t know whether to thank you or spank you, mate… . Not bad for a townie.’ ” The story might have ended there, but Hill knows that the potential girlfriend must be in at the finale.

Though not in the same category as See Ya Simon, or as mind-grabbing as Bodies and Soul, Aim High is a first-rate book by a top author.

Frog Whistle Mine, subject and title of the novel by Des Hunt, is located at Charleston on the West Coast, once a gold-rush town. Perilous rock faces, mineshafts and water-courses remain. Traces of gold and crystals of uranium can still be found; and, possibly, the body of a missing French backpacker. Twelve-year-old Tony has never met his father, or had a proper home. His mother, Christine, is taking a job at Tree Frog Lodge. Tony will sleep in a caravan. On that first day, the caravan is ransacked; Christine falls in love-at-first-sight with Nick, a geologist, who predicts an earthquake; Tony meets Rose, a potential friend. Also the “creepy” Jamie Duggan, a herbalist.

As in all Des Hunt’s books, events romp ahead. The style of writing is punchy, sometimes erratic, and a few spell-check errors rush past, probably unnoticed among the hazards of the exciting plot. Tony explores the mines, makes imaginative mistakes and draws wrong conclusions. Nick explains essential geological terms and facts, which readers of Des Hunt’s A Friend in Paradise and The Moa Cave may know already. The earthquake erupts, flooding the mine where Nick is lying trussed up. Duggan and Christine slide over a precipice. All this action and drama are described more vividly than the characters, which are hard to pin down convincingly in an unrealistic story. Tony, however, despite his insecure background and feckless mother, emerges as a genuinely courageous and resilient boy. At the end, Rose gives Christine and Nick two ounces of gold!

Lizzie, Love is an account of a missionary family living in Kerikeri during the 1830s. Brenda Delamain has written an “imagined version of their lives”, based on many sources. The eldest daughter, Elizabeth or Lizzie, is mentioned in her father’s diary and in the journal of Marianne Williams. Through the innocent fabric of family life in the busy Kemp household, two dark strands are subtly threaded: the personal  problems of Lizzie herself and of her mother.

Lizzie, handicapped by one paralysed leg, as well as the disadvantage of being a girl, finds it hard to believe in God. Her many prayers are unanswered. When reminded that she must submit to the will of God, “ ‘What a stupid God!’ she said bitterly. ‘And what a stupid will.’ ” Her father gently explains how she is part of his missionary work and why they must stay in Kerikeri.  Threads of self-justification must run obliquely through many of the diaries and documents Delamain has studied.

The local Maori are loyal friends and good Christians. Lizzie cannot understand her mother’s fears. Gradually, adjective by adjective, Mrs Kemp loses her mind. As Marianne Williams wrote in her journal, “Mrs Shepherd, Mrs Fairbairn, Mrs Kemp and myself have all been brought down to an apparently hopeless state.” Lizzie may not understand why this happened, but we do, with the hindsight of history. Delamain has included a description of Charles Darwin attending the missionary children’s Christmas party, recorded by Marianne Williams and, indeed, by Darwin himself.

Thanks to Delamain’s style and vocabulary, this story of the 1830s involves the reader in aspects of early settler life that have not been told before. If you wonder how true life turned out for Lizzie, you will be surprised when you read the interesting postscript.

Fathers play important parts in all these books, more often by their absence than by their presence. In Shooting the Moon by V M Jones, Dad is the major character, upstaging his sons, Nick and even Phil. The McLeod family has already figured in the successful Juggling with Mandarins. This new book is another triumph, but is independent of its predecessor. Here is Dad, roaring at Phil in the first sentence, “his sandpaper-stubbled jaw… clenched, his black hair sticking up in angry tufts”. Within the space of this book, Dad moves from dominating his family, to being the victim of an accident. Nick, once such a paragon, falls into a bad patch, while Phil (the name he now prefers to Pip) literally climbs to success, and not only up rocks. Mum still manages to keep the peace and to read stories to Madeline, who is now a two-for-tantrums lovable child.

Rob, Phil’s climbing coach, “the coolest”, gives memorable advice to Phil, defining the difference between “telling on”, which gets someone in trouble, and “telling”, which gets a person out of trouble. “ ‘Most important of all, let him (Nick) know you love him.’ ” Also memorable is Phil’s “ramshackle” English teacher’s definition of poetry: “ ‘a way of making the truths in our hearts accessible to other people.’ ” Phil’s poem is printed at the end of the book. It describes the stag which he has seen at dawn and which he now knows he will never kill. This decision is a turning-point in Phil’s growing up: “Shooting the moon will not kill the night/The darkness can only be vanquished/By the dawning light.” That light, which is also “the name of the tree” in the story Mum has read aloud, permeates the McLeod family life and, indeed, this whole wonderful and perspicacious book. The title page might well read: “Shooting the Moon, love from V M Jones”.

 

Joan de Hamel is a Dunedin reviewer. 

 

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Posted in Children, Fiction, Literature, Review and Young adults
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