The Gorse Blooms Pale: Dan Davin’s Southland Stories
Janet Wilson (ed)
Otago University Press, $49.95,
Dan Davin published his last short story, “Gardens of Exile”, in the New Zealand Listener in 1989. In it, the four boys of the Connolly family, Mick, Ned, Matt and Paddy, are late home from rabbiting in the silver cold of a Southland winter. It is the second to last story in Janet Wilson’s new edition of Davin’s “Southland” stories – the last, “Failed Exorcism”, dated 15 February 1989, was written 18 months before he died in September 1990 and remained unpublished. By this time, Davin was in acute ill health from alcoholism, depressed and in severe pain. According to Keith Ovenden’s excellent biography of Davin, A Fighting Withdrawal (1996), he still had plans for working and assembling material for another collection of stories, but by the end of the summer of 1989 had “stopped writing anything extended, and took to writing comments and aphorisms in a notebook, or on scraps of paper that he left around the house.”
In her handsome hardback book (complete with a yellow satin bookmark), Wilson collects together all the stories Davin published which were based on his childhood and on later visits to Southland as an expatriate Kiwi living in Oxford. These stories amount, as Wilson’s notes and introduction make very clear, to a fictional biography. Renaming his family as the Connollys, Davin recounts incidents, people and geographies from his vividly remembered, impoverished, Irish-Catholic boyhood Southland. Wilson’s notes trace the footsteps of the narrator, Mick Connolly, around the neighbourhood of the Davin household at 36 Morton Road in Invercargill as he does his chores and makes his way to school.
A number of stories, such as “The Death of a Dog”, first published in a shorter version as “Toby”, are based on actual events, and indeed the tone of the stories, their flat undecorated style, in tune with the school of realism that Frank Sargeson and others made New Zealand’s literary voice for so long, makes it hard to think that any of them are purely works of the imagination. In one of his later stories, “First Flight”, the unnamed narrator who in every respect resembles Davin (he is the “famous son”, his mother is dead, he is literary, has been in the war and lives in England) has come to visit his father. When the time comes to depart for Dunedin by small plane, he buys his father a ticket and takes him for his first flight. In the pub in Dunedin, listening to his father yarning with old mates, he reflects that “it’s only your own life that’s real, the realest part about it is the time when you were young.” Like many of New Zealand’s most celebrated writers and especially the expatriates, Davin’s literary imagination is firmly tethered to the country he left and to his childhood experience. How important is he in our literary canon?
Janet Wilson’s fine edition is a scholarly work. She is not, of course, the first to realise how closely Davin’s stories mirror his life, and what an important historical window they are on to a distinctive part of the New Zealand experience. Donald Harman Akenson’s book about the Irish in New Zealand Half the World From Home and Ovenden’s biography, both of which are important sources for Wilson, emphasise this aspect. Wilson has made all the points of connection across life and text, glossing out-of-date vocabulary and New Zealand usages, behaviours and customs. Some of it is also peculiarly Irish – frequent references to the “black stranger”, for example, meaning dangers away from home, and also linked to “black” Protestants. Wilson argues in her introduction that Davin’s fiction, particularly the chronologically ordered sequence of Connolly stories which dominate the collection, moves “beyond the horizons of the migrant Irish-Catholic community in which they are set.” She suggests that the stories show “strong affinities with the universal preoccupations of diasporic writing” and that Mick and his brothers define themselves as New Zealanders against a set of older values represented by their Irish migrant parents.
It is certainly the case that, as a whole, the stories in The Gorse Blooms Pale critique a narrowly materialist and puritanical society. In what seems to be a particularly Irish-Catholic way, it is women who carry the heaviest burden of representation. It is mother who insists on the death of the dog in the story of the same name and the sister who complains about a mild bite who ensures it all happens. Maternal affection has a hard edge, mothers are to be “got round” by singing sentimental ballads and older sisters are more likely to be treacherous than loving. Moments of communion are always between men, and boys failing at their task are “Lady Janes”. At the same time, it is the lovely Dulcie who dies of a botched abortion without revealing the name of the man who caused it. “A Meeting Half Way” where a woman kills her husband for embarrassing her in front of the minister, just as he resolves to try harder in his marriage, puts the conflict between social convention and human passion in very simple terms. However, this is a conflict that underlies Davin’s fiction (as indeed it does Sargeson’s and most of his male successors) and is highly gendered. What Davin adds to New Zealand literary nationalism – which in broad terms he represents and is part of – is regionalism, but not in the mechanistic way that it is sometimes used in, for example, historical novels.
Collecting these stories together demonstrates a slowly deepening sense of place and community, to which the narrator, as he ages and becomes less specifically “Mick” and more anonymous, has a shifting relation. It might be a narrow and bigoted community but it has, through Mick, an intense awareness of, and relationship to, a highly differentiated patch of streets, hills, paddocks, barns, front doors, hedges, hostile gangs, schools and animals. Davin’s style is instantly recognisable as the preferred New Zealand literary idiom, but it is spattered with slang and Irish expressions and the tags and odd ends of a literary sensibility. The stories revolve around slight but momentous events, and they are scarcely fictional, but they do fiction’s work of evoking a time and place so intensely you can sometimes smell it.
So how important is Davin in the scheme of things? I think the answer is moderately, and perhaps less important than the hefty scholarly apparatus of this book would seem to imply. He is a very good literary nationalist and regional writer. His best stories sing off the page. But except for the Irish-Catholic dimension, his fiction is well inside the literary territory dominated by others of his generation and later – Mulgan and Sargeson particularly, but also John Reece Cole, Maurice Duggan, Maurice Gee and Vincent O’Sullivan.
Part of what is evident from Wilson’s edition is the synergistic connection between Davin’s life and work – he needed them both – and Ovenden’s biography shows a man whose life was so full of drama and incident and whose times were so interesting they outweigh his literary achievements. Perhaps we will come to see, as Wilson asserts, that his stories will remain as “relevant today as when they were first written”. But while I am very glad to have this book, the case it makes for the extremely close connections between Davin’s life and his stories leads me back to the life, remarkable partly, but not principally, as a writer.
Lydia Wevers is an academic at Victoria University of Wellington.