Penguin Books, $28.00,
The First Touch of Light
Penguin Books, $28.00,
Terry Sturm’s magisterial section on the novel in The Oxford History of New Zealand Literature in English is much concerned with placing longer fiction against its social background, in terms of the earlier “secularised puritan monoculture” or “the post-provincial pluralistic present” (as at 1998).
You could argue that, in little over a decade, this idea of the novel as mirror or microscope on society has become endearingly passé. Our 21st century exponents have very different purposes, right? They experiment with language and the Unreliable Narrator; rummage through the life of the mind or the genitals; do clever things with meta-narrative and sub-text, plus meta-text and sub-narrative. Society, if it features at all, means friends/lovers, and enemies/lovers, or an exotic location that the protagonist lives in but apart from, or a centripetally-focused circle of people the protagonist runs into and over. Society as a significant element in New Zealand fiction went out with typewriters, surely?
I apologise for making the suggestion even as a straw … person. Society in its sub-groups continues to preoccupy authors as diverse as Duff and Marshall, Grimshaw and Catton. Gee has always used it; Jones keeps coming back to it; a lot of our best kids’ writers offer trenchant takes on it. South Island writers possibly do so more overtly. There’s a thesis topic. But it just won’t go away. Such is the case with these two novels.
I like Paddy Richardson’s writing. Her plots are sturdy; her prose is strong and modest, springy with short sentences, working hard at the vernacular. Hunting Blind is her third novel, and opens in Wanaka, December 1988: “School Picnic Day: the summer has exploded … with tangs of lavender, hot mown grass and steaks on the barbie.” Into a lakeside idyll, horror irrupts: four-year-old Gemma Anderson vanishes.
Ian McEwan did it in The Child in Time, lifting it to emblematic, almost mythic levels. Richardson handles the first reactions very convincingly. The distress and desolation of the opening sections are enough to send you flicking to the end, hoping for a happy resolution. Dialogue and mood are fraught, fearful, fragile. The first 50-odd pages are a tour de force.
The challenge then is how to handle tension and pace. What Richardson does is to jump 17 years to 2005. Gemma’s teenage sister Stephanie, the major voice of the narrative, is now a psychiatrist in Dunedin, still punishing herself for what she sees as her moment of neglect. She takes on a new patient, a clinically depressed young woman who has tried to kill herself after an abortion. Gradually, incredulously, as she listens to Beth’s maimed history, Stephanie recognises the parallels to her own.
The worlds of illness and care, the ill and the caregivers, are carefully and compassionately evoked. Richardson is good at carefully unpeeling layers, and she does it well here. She’s good also at rendering the mundane moments that highlight the adjacent anguish.
Then, almost exactly halfway through, the plot turns into a quest/quests, which I shouldn’t and won’t tell you about in any detail. A sleuthing genre quality takes over. Style, structure, characters shift accordingly, with varying degrees of success. Events and action are assembled rather than assimilated. As the similarities of Stephanie’s, Beth’s and a romantic interest’s traumas build, so the repetitions and coincidences mount and swell. An increasingly Gothic, grand guignol tone also pumps things up.
Stephanie – “She’s thirty-one and she’s never been in love” – remains rewarding to follow as she begins her trek away from Being Sensible. There are other excellently-rendered characters – glossy, absent, manpulative Minna; damaged and defiant young Beth – though the shadowy monster doesn’t really get beyond being shadowy and monstrous. A rather soppy, rather improbable, rather engaging love and reconciliation progress scoops up a lot of the participants and brings them together.
However, it’s this second part of the book that satisfies less. The changes in voice and focus are sometimes lurches. There’s an architectural and stylistic discordance between it and the opening half, especially when the closing chapters start cranking up to a Kill Bill climax on the forest floor. There are moments of (im)pure melodrama: the spunky young male teacher staring hot and hungry at a little girl; the discovery inside a sunglasses pouch. Phrases such as “a hot rush of tears” and “ ‘Actually you’d be surprised at how much more I’ve given away to you than to anyone else’ ” pulse purple.
Social background? Richardson gives us an era when the term “paedophile” initiates programmed responses, where mobility, women professionals, tourism, the decline of rural communities are part of the times and all come with narrative expectations. Stephanie is driven by her conditioning as well as her gut feelings.
Hunting Blind also offers an ably managed and undeniably engrossing game of two halves, where, if you can accept the change of ends halfway through, you’ll be yanked along to the final, full-on revenge. I just wish Richardson could have done it without the knife and the rifle. Sorry: I said I wouldn’t tell you those details.
The social background is personal foreground in Ruth Pettis’ lyrically-titled last novel (she died in 2008). War and then a bleak peace shape or mis-shape most characters. Flicking from Italy 1943 to Rangitikei 1940 or 1955, to Greece 1942, to Italy again in 2000, The First Touch of Light is predominantly the stories of George and Ellen.
He leaves as WWII volunteer the morning after his marriage to her. He is shipped to Egypt for training, then to Greece for fighting, and endures the German onslaught that pushes the Allies back to Crete. On the island, he loses his best mate, and he’s “not really there” for some time after. He fights at El Alamein (Pettis’s research is thorough and respectful) and becomes part of the prolonged push up through Italy.
He survives – physically. But he feels himself “diminished beyond recognition” by his experiences. He doesn’t want to go home.
He does, though, to the one-night wife to whom he hasn’t written for three years. He’s a mess. Meanwhile, Ellen is a mother – and not of his child. While he’s been absent, and she’s been trying to “carve her life into small, manageable acts”, she’s had an affair. So has George, though we don’t hear about his till towards the end. So both of them are blighted and burdened, but while he hunches around his rage, she’s expected by society to carry on. When she can’t, and leaves home and family, she has to fight to stop herself from staring in shame at the ground wherever she goes.
Meanwhile we have another adolescent, Beth, the child born during George’s absence, who like Richardson’s character of the same name believes herself responsible for the misery of others. It’s she who, after nearly 60 years, also heads for Italy in search of comprehension and closure (a term which Pettis is too good a writer to use).
This careful, crafted novel examines many kinds of solitude: chosen (“being alone and not yet secure in that aloneness”), enforced, geographical, marital. A number of the characters spend sections of their lives waiting to get away, and are seldom content when they do so.
Where Richardson tears along, Pettis steps thoughtfully, sometimes slowly. She’s sympathetic and occasionally severe towards all sides. She evokes the poignancy of generations and genders who seldom talk to each other. George is a convincing, damaged figure, trying to comprehend tenderness and being almost within reach of something precious even while he has (literally) blood on his hands. We could do with more of the adult Beth, who shapes as a significant narrator but remains only partially developed.
The writing is full and sometimes over-full of images and sensuous responses: Montefalco’s “swathes of grey-green olives, straw-coloured ploughed fields and the dark spires of cypresses”; an old man terrified under a shower; a grandmother grown to resemble her big dark wooden house with the wide skirt around it. Pettis works hard at bloke-speak, though I doubt that any Kiwi with XY chromosomes could ever bring himself to say “Up to a few days ago, I never questioned the fact that I’d eventually be back with her”.
Ticks to Penguin for their production. Both books are attractively designed, with clean, clear typeface and handsome covers. Ticks also to their authors. Pettis has left a novel of skill and integrity; I hope it doesn’t sound crass to say how I regret we won’t read more from her. I do look forward to the next (plural) from Richardson.
David Hill is a New Plymouth writer.