Brava Publications, $30.00,
Reading a novel written while the author was dying and published posthumously, is, inevitably, an experience tinged with sadness. I knew Bronwyn Tate only slightly, but I admit I’ve been unable to be as objective as I might have been had this been her fifth novel, published by her loyal publishers, with the expectation of more to come in the years ahead.
I have written before of my dismay that Tate’s work is not better known in New Zealand. Several reasons can be posited for this: geography; personal circumstances; her carefully layered storytelling, which demands close attention from the reader; her deceptively quiet prose; her small-town locations and characters. But none of these provide a satisfactory explanation as to why such a large silence should surround the work of this fine writer.
Adam’s Ale is Tate’s fifth novel, coming after the excellent, and largely unsung, Lily’s Cupola. In some ways it is almost a sequel. Lily, the protagonist of Lily’s Cupola, like Stephanie in Adam’s Ale, is a keen quilter. She writes unanswered letters to her sister in England, in the course of which a wartime secret comes to light. Similarly, in Adam’s Ale, the secret binding Stephanie to Claire has its origins in the distant past. In both novels, Tate, with the instinct of a true storyteller, holds back the revelation of these secrets till the story’s end.
Evie, Claire’s teenage daughter, ignorant of all but the historical facts of The Landing, the small town where she lives with her family, is keenly aware, as she wanders the paddocks and beaches and country roads, of the presence of what went before:
When she moves around The Landing it is as though a thousand memories whisper and shuffle, unsettled by her activity. She feels a sense of duality, like a life glimpsed from outside a lit window at night. The Landing as it is now, and as it was once.
It is this sense of collapsing time that both distinguishes Tate as a writer, and creates the challenge for the reader. In Leaving for Townsville, Tate’s first novel, events from the past are played out in the lives of middle-aged Richard and Hazel, facing the break- up of their marriage. In Russian Dolls, the novel that followed, Isla, the present-day heroine, uncovers the story of her maiden great-aunt, whose act of defiance against her family during WWI mirrors Isla’s own teenage rebellion.
As I brooded on this theme of the past not being past, the writer who kept coming to mind was Ian McEwan. His Atonement and On Chesil Beach are near-perfect examples of the power of past events to influence the present.
Tate’s language also invites comparison with McEwan. Her economy of expression and reliance on imagery, while not as disciplined as McEwan’s (and not as chilly), marks her as a writer who cares deeply about language, and its power to bring new worlds into being. Compare McEwan’s description of the death of Robbie Turner in Atonement with Tate’s moving account in Adam’s Ale of the approach of Stephanie’s death:
Bits keep falling off the edge of her vision. There are ghosts too, in forty shades of beige, walking across in front of her, but when she tries to touch them, to discern details, they’re gone, their shadowy teabag hues fading as they waltz into nothingness … She knows, as she crawls, that she doesn’t like herself much now. She’s become short-tempered, impossible to please. Her vocabulary is diminishing … . Words and phrases like next year, next week … . Verbs like run and leap and make love. Words like hope and ambition.
Skilful though Tate’s use of time is, there were moments when the narrative became confusing, and I had to struggle to hold the different storylines together. It was as if she felt there was no time to explain the sometimes startling leaps from present to past, all that mattered was to get this complex story of interlocking lives down on paper.
Perhaps the most successful element of this novel, as of all Tate’s novels, is her sense of place. The Landing – “a town where everyone knows everyone, or at least they know the gossip if not the person or the facts” – is made vivid in images of sky (“clouds lay like stained rags, their edges frayed as though they had been clawed by playful cats”); sea; river; land; island; trees; boats; houses, old and new. The town is “a crystal chandelier. A puff of air makes every prism shiver and spin and rattle.” Even a careless reader of Tate’s work could not fail to be struck by the vividness of her descriptions, and her passionate love affair with the New Zealand landscape.
That said, there were times in Adam’s Ale when Tate’s reliance on simile brought her dangerously close to cliché: “The bike leaps like a rodeo horse, trailing white smoke like a tail.” These lapses became more noticeable towards the end of the novel, a sign perhaps of time running out for the author. The last third felt rushed, the connections unconvincing. Part of this was due to the fact that Tate had chosen, unwisely, I think, to people her novel with a large cast of characters. This requires not only attention on the reader’s part, but frequent re-reading. In the end it felt as if the effort of pulling all the overlapping stories into shape was too great for her, and the narrative collapsed in an unconvincing conclusion. Had there been fewer characters and storylines the themes Tate explores would have resonated more successfully.
Adam’s Ale (I’m still unsure what the title signifies) may not be Bronwyn Tate’s best novel, but it is a worthy successor to the four that went before. Taken as a whole, these novels constitute a body of work as good as any put out by our young-to-middle-aged writers. Her sense of character, and her depiction of the power of place and its influence on people’s lives, are second to none. Add to that her sometimes brilliant handling of the mysterious relationship between past and present, and her claim to be taken seriously as a writer seems to me to be unarguable.
Elspeth Sandys is a Wellington writer.