The Best New Zealand Fiction Volume 4
Fiona Farrell (ed),
The Girl Who Proposed: New Short Stories
Cape Catley, $29.99,
Here and There, Now and Then
Earl of Seacliff Art Workshop, $24.99,
New Zealand is by definition insular; we can gaze out to sea, or turn our backs and look to the hills. Or we look at ourselves. Fiction can create a dialogue that is concerned with who we are, not just as inhabitants of this small country, but as inhabitants of Planet Earth in the early 21st century. “(F)iction is cross-referential. No book is an island,” writes Fiona Farrell in her introduction to The Best New Zealand Fiction Volume 4: “Like this archipelago on which we live … the stories in this collection set up their own angle and echo to one another.”
The Best New Zealand Fiction is a time capsule of its year and should be widely read for that alone. I can’t think of any other publication that comes close to it for presenting authentic snapshots of the interesting times we live in. It satisfies the hunger for contemporary local work and, like a good restaurant with a varied menu, helps to cultivate tastes and educate palates.
Congratulations to Vintage for its commitment to a genre so often marginalised. (However, this volume’s cover struck me as drab compared to the splendidly vivid paua and pohutukawa designs of volumes one and two.)
Of its 20 pieces, including two that are novel extracts, only one has been previously published and one broadcast, indicating that the works are indeed hot off the printer and that the editor relied on her own judgment. The success of this sort of anthology depends largely on the taste and zeal of the collator, since as far as I know, submissions aren’t called for. In her introduction Farrell explains how she went in search of local fiction:
I read the magazines, scanned websites, listened to Radio New Zealand, wrote to writers whose work I already knew and loved, contacted others whose work I was coming across in odd places for the first time, and assembled twenty stories that for me best express the distinctive power and beauty of New Zealand fiction.
If anyone could ferret out a good story it would be Farrell.
When tackling a collection like this I usually skip the editor’s comments about individual stories until I’ve read them, when the remarks make more sense, but read the introduction that gives the flavour of the anthology. Farrell ranges widely, perhaps too widely – we get references to the 1935 Labour government, Dale Spender, Jane Austen, Alexander McCall-Smith, Katherine Mansfield, Bertolt Brecht, the crime wave in Christchurch and the repeal of Section 59. She offers a personal response to each work that is generous and open-minded, but she is always aware of context – literary history and location, location, location. She compares her comments to the T Texas Tyler monologue about the soldier and the pack of cards, an analogy that gives her rein to explore, explain and digress.
The stories are diverse. Farrell likes the patchwork analogy and returns to the concept of beauty. The pieces are all accomplished, but if Farrell had gone looking for voices or locations she might have ended up with the same 20. We get New Zealand town and country – small town, big city with its mean streets; the beach, the bach, and down on the farm. To say that it’s representative is to delight in the reach and scope of our literature.
There’s a good muster of Big Names but some Lesser Knowns as well. Only Michelle Arathimos has no publications to her name (though she is working on a novel), but her story “The Free Box” stands up well. I would rate among the most memorable pieces Paula Morris’ “Red Christmas” and Judith White’s “Crash”. Eirlys Hunter’s “WhatSmartGirlsKnow” is laudably unpredictable, as is the deadpan “Win a Day with Mikhail Gorbachev” by Tim Jones.
Witi Ihimaera has a bob each way with his self-conscious re-creation of a story in his early style, interrupted with postmodern ruminations like this:
I took another break from the story. Once upon a time, I would not have questioned the directness or ingenuousness of my writing. But I know more postcolonial theory now, and not only do I write literature, I also teach postcolonial identity. Is any of this reflected in the story? No.
He may be pulling our legs. The reader won’t respond equally to every story in the collection; there’s bound to be one that irritates, but anyone with an interest in our local writing should buy this book or request it as an annual Christmas present.
It seems unfair to compare The Best New Zealand Fiction with collections that have sprung from one source. I enjoyed the diversity of Farrell’s compilation and the range of voices. A collection from a single author is a different animal altogether. The Girl Who Proposed, Elizabeth Smither’s fifth collection of short stories, is a book beautiful enough to be a fashion accessory. The elegant, inscrutable cover image by Kathryn Madill signals what lies within – compelling narratives where seemingly simple sentences lead the reader into encounters with fragile yet resilient characters, usually women. Their world is familiar but discomforting. A telling detail brings the present into sharper focus – the purple handbag, the rose-patterned carpet, the bread burning in the oven. There are smells and sights and beautiful music. Everybody has a past life with periods of anguish and some small victories. Marriages are unsatisfactory, but solace can be found at a concert or in the local library.
Not all Smither’s characters are well-read people with lines of poetry in their heads; there are “bachelors”, a teenage burglar and a quartet of Pilates practitioners. However, they are not all equally convincing and some stories are simply overpopulated. Those with a limited cast work best, for instance “Kathy and Tim” and “The Girl Who Proposed”, modern love stories that balance each other nicely. The reader engages with the vulnerable characters while the unsympathetic ones, like the man proposed to, are exposed but not entirely damned. We don’t know how the story will turn out, and Smither makes us wonder what it is we wish for.
“Kathy and Tim”, “The Girl Who Proposed” and “Confrontation” rely on strong narrative threads rather than whimsical ideas that may or may not strike a chord with the reader. The story about the Pilates group, for example, is weighed down with back-story and seems to lack go-forward as they say in rugby circles.
Here and There, Now and Then is Isa Moynihan’s second collection of stories. Sex and the Single Mayfly appeared in 1997, (not 1977, as is stated in the acknowledgements). Though the cover image is charming, editing is shoddy. This collection consists of 15 stories, some of which feature the same characters and even the same events, told from a different point of view. A “fable” in the science fiction genre sits rather uncomfortably as the final piece.
While husbands stray in Smither’s far-from-perfect world, in Moynihan’s spouses entertain thoughts of homicide. Mrs Madison is tempted by the possibility of cracking her husband’s head with the garden spade. He, it turns out, is also thinking of murder. “In a half-dream he is chopping off the silky hair. He is twisting it into a rope. He is tightening it round the woman’s neck.” All this in suburban Christchurch!
Moynihan’s tongue is firmly in her cheek but the danger of a consistent ironic tone is that the reader will cease to care when caring is called for. There’s a general lack of psychological direction; a moment with a potent emotional charge is skipped over, or a story is so slight it flashes past the reader. In “On the Ice Floe”, likeable septuagenarian Lucy Wentworth is coping well with life in spite of her daughter’s misgivings. She buys a baseball bat for self-defence and on the last page of the story gets to use it on a burglar. This climactic event is described in such a cursory fashion it seems to have no emotional weight, though it constitutes a vindication of Lucy’s determination to live independently.
White mischief and black magic in the Malayan Emergency offer scope to Moynihan’s satirical sense of humour. When Millie is given a potent grey powder by a Malay witch, she wonders whether to poison her husband and his mistress or throw a dinner party and make everyone sick. But is she up for it?
The short story is a good thing in a small parcel. Long may it thrive in these islands. It may become the reader’s genre of choice in leaner times when less is acknowledged to be more, and that could happen any day now.
Christine Johnston is a Dunedin writer.