Mermaids, miners and mystics, Anne Else

Saltskin
Louise Moulin
Black Swan, $27.99,
ISBN 9781869419608

Ribbons of Grace
Maxine Alterio
Penguin Books, $35.00,
ISBN 9780143006442

Acts of Love
Susan Pearce
Victoria University Press, $29.99,
ISBN 9780864735652

Three first (or at any rate, first published) novels, all by women living in New Zealand, all set partly here and partly elsewhere, and all dealing with earlier eras for at least some of their length. But that’s where the similarities end. These books represent three quite different genres of fiction. Saltskin is billed in the accompanying flier as “escapist fiction at its best”. I think they mean that it comes into the same category as, for example, Joanne Harris’ Chocolat: exotic/romantic locales in place and time (without overly much regard for historical accuracy); larger-than-life characters with larger-than-usual appetites, sensibilities, and powers – including the ability to exert a strong influence down through future generations; and more than a touch of magic at work.

So Saltskin opens in 18th-century London, where Pierre Page, an elderly French master weaver married to Magdalene, a red-headed former courtesan, is teaching his trade to her ugly, resentful son Angelo. After Pierre shows her “the proof of her lost lover’s death”, Magdalene kills herself with a knife in her bath, where Angelo finds her, and “the shock turned his vibrant ginger hair grey.”

Then Pierre gets a mysterious commission to weave a magnificent tapestry of a mermaid: “And so it was that a distraction chanced upon the barren home, which changed the course of life hereafter.” Angelo becomes obsessed with mermaids, and after Pierre dies he sails on a whaling ship to Jacob’s River, on the coast of the South Island, in the hope of finding one.

Meanwhile, centuries ahead in the “modern day”, red-haired Gilda is pursuing her own false dream of love to England and back again, bereft, to Jacob’s River and the comfort of her friends:

It was like he lit a fuse inside me to a bomb of melancholy that was always there …. You wouldn’t be the first to use a romance to fill a void, Ginger. God, it’s a trait of the Page women, like a gypsy curse … . You know you come from a long line of unwed mothers in this clan. Seven generations.

 

Alternating between past and present, we slowly – at times, particularly when Gilda is working through her turbulent emotions in italics, it feels like eternity – find out how their destinies are linked. The trail involves an actual mermaid, who recognises Angelo on the water’s edge where he is “banging” the evil other woman, Angela Swan: “[his] white sperm flushed up her scarlet channel, with one pointed intention, with a one-track mind, towards the one shining, opalescent egg, burrowing, burrowing, burrowing.”

There is much, much more in this vein, including whale-hunts, magic spells and mirrors, mermaid-skin slippers, and a sizeable quotient of queasily nasty violence, before poor Gilda learns the whole truth, comes to terms with her extraordinary past, and realises that “faith is the opposite of fear … I want what I already have.”

It is possible, I think, to write a story about a tapestry weaver turned whaler, a mermaid, and their modern day descendants that would work convincingly enough to carry the reader enjoyably along. But Saltskin is not that story. Except for occasional passages of smooth sailing through choppy seas, it flounders uneasily between waving and drowning before it finally runs aground.

Ribbons of Grace is a completely different kettle of fish – or rather gold. It works very hard to tell a credible, moving, well-plotted, historically accurate tale of a spirited young Chinese woman who sets out to follow her brother to the Central Otago goldfields, and takes on his identity when he is killed by the river pirates to whom her despairing father has already sold her sister. She works on the Arrow River as a man until a fiddle-playing stonemason from Orkney realises the truth, and they fall in love – with disastrous consequences.

Unfortunately, it works much too hard. No one, apparently, has helped the author to grasp one vital fact about historical fiction: that while it is of course essential to do thorough background research, it is fatal to try to work all of that research – or even a large chunk of it – into the story. The more simply written sections in the voice of Ming Yuet, starting back in China, suffer less from this dreadfully off-putting habit than the ones in the voice of her Orkney man, Conran. These are littered with intrusive dialect forms and terms (peddie, spret, dunder, moppie) and irritatingly irrelevant and inappropriate snippets of information about his native land and folkways, not to mention the local newspaper stories of the period, which manage to work their way in at every available opportunity.

The strong but flawed nurse/midwife, Ida, comes across better, but by the time she gets to reveal the shocking climax and its aftermath, it’s hard to recapture the reader’s flagging attention. It’s a pity, as there’s a good historical novel here struggling to shake itself free of its cumbersome trappings.

I’ve saved the best until last. With Acts of Love, we move into completely different territory in every sense. In terms of its engagement with the past, the novel harks back to what is, in some ways, an even stranger and more remote setting: a religious cult under the control of a charismatic leader in 1960s Duluth, Minnesota. This accomplished first novel is all the more remarkable because it focuses on the deeply unfashionable field of how religious experience can affect people’s lives, and does so with, for the most part, stunning success. It also has a deeply unfashionable heroine: an ordinary woman, in late middle age when the book begins, who is neither clever nor articulate, and who takes the whole book to understand the meaning of what she has experienced.

The writing is impressively sure-footed. Susan Pearce has an acute ear for language and inflection, and has the invaluable skill of knowing how much to tell and not tell. But she also conveys a thorough understanding of exactly what she’s writing about. Born in Wellington, she later lived with her family in religious communities in India and England, although not the USA. The world of Duluth and its people, especially the women, who become involved in the superbly named People Under God’s Command is wholly convincing. Yet at the same time Pearce’s account of it is shot through with flashes of sharp satire that have to be read twice to reveal just how effectively barbed and bitingly funny they are.

The story moves back and forth between contemporary New Zealand, where the central character, Rita, now lives with her husband Bill, and the years when they were both members of the community run by the compelling but deeply flawed Leland Swann. There’s a parallel storyline involving their daughter Stella, newly separated from the man her parents think is her husband, and desperately trying to get pregnant by sleeping with a man she hardly knows. After Leland’s wife Betty, who had been Rita’s close friend, dies of cancer, he suddenly reappears in their lives, and is pulling Rita back into his orbit. Then she encounters Betty’s final act of love.

It’s not possible here to do justice to the riches of this book. With confidence and panache, it explores the various and shifting acts of love, by ourselves and by others, that shape and misshape our lives – especially the lives of women – in ways both profoundly serious and remarkably satisfying. I look forward with great eagerness to Susan Pearce’s next novel.

 

Anne Else is a Wellington writer and reviewer. 

 

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