Off the main drag, John McCrystal

Gravel Roads
Peter Butler
David Ling, $29.99,
ISBN 9781877378461

 

The Widow’s Daughter
Nicholas Edlin
Penguin, $40.00,
ISBN 9780143204091

 

Settlers’ Creek
Carl Nixon
Vintage, $29.99,
ISBN 9781869794033

 

Quinine 
Kelly Ana Morey
Huia, $35.00,
ISBN 9781869694319

 

Peter Butler is a qualified historian, with two non-fiction titles to his credit. In his first foray into fiction, he shows he has a better grasp than most on how it is that the past exerts a tidal influence on the present. As the name suggests, Gravel Roads is set in rural New Zealand, the bits most of us are aware of only from the yellow AA fingerposts pointing off the main drag, recording the names of places seldom visited and the remove, in physical terms at least, at which they lie from the lives of the mainstream. Much of the action occurs in, around, “Ailsford”, a town that could be just about anywhere in New Zealand but that closely resembles Renwick or Takaka or Collingwood.

Gravel Roads comprises 20 linked stories, qualifying as a novel rather than a collection by virtue of the links – the characters they have in common. There’s even a main character, of sorts, an antihero by the name of David Short. He features in many of the stories, but not all. He’s like a mate you keep in touch with in desultory fashion, in whom you maintain an interest when rumours reach you or there’s a chance encounter with the man himself. You realise the novel’s working when you find yourself straining toward the next page in case you see him, or find out what’s happened to him, how he’s getting on.

Gravel Roads works, all right. The writing is spare and judicious, strong on suggestion and short on explanation and easy resolution. There could be lots going on: drug use, child abuse, incest, illicit love, even (the most improbable of all, as it seems) the real thing; or it could all be the figment of rumour, of country pub gossip.

It works because Butler nails his characters. Although they’re painted only with oblique strokes, they finish up fully drawn. Few of them are wholly appealing; none is without redeeming features. All are labouring to overcome or transcend some disadvantage – post-code lottery isn’t the greatest of these – and mostly you badly want them to succeed. Along the way, a portrait of New Zealand and New Zealanders emerges, too, or at least of masculine New Zealand. The novel’s people inhabit the backwaters because they choose to, or because they have no choice. Many of those who have made it out into the mainstream hanker to return (as signified by the national predilection for driving SUVs).

We’re a nation descended from our frontier forebears, and in many ways the frontier still defines us. As the hollow core lies at the heart of a rata tree where its erstwhile host has decayed, we harbour an emptiness where adversity has crumbled away.

In The Widow’s Daughter, Nicholas Edlin, another debutant, takes us back in time to wartime Auckland, when the Queen City was crawling with Yanks. One of those Yanks is Peter Sokol, a surgeon in the US Marines who is stationed at the US surgical hospital in Victoria Park. Sokol is a bit of an outsider, and not just in the Marines, where he has made the rank of captain on the strength of his surgical prowess rather than any merit he has as a military man. Nevertheless, he is a natural leader, unlike his immediate superior and sometime brother-in-law, the well-connected, steaming political animal Cartwright. This gives rise to tension. And when both become infatuated with the same woman, Emily Walters, the tension ramps up.

And there’s more. From the very first time he sets foot inside the Walters residence, a big, decaying Parnell mansion where Emily lives with her mother, her volatile brother and the family’s hulking manservant, Winston, Sokol suspects there’s more to the family than meets the eye. They’re not British, as they claim: but if not from Britain, from what European nation do they hail? And what is the connection between Emily’s brother Oscar and the opium and prostitution scene on Ponsonby Road?

Meanwhile, 60-odd years on, Peter Sokol is driving from his San Diego home to Los Angeles to hear Sturgis, a former comrade-in-arms and Peter’s closest army friend, deliver a lecture on his new novel, essentially a roman à clef featuring nothing less than the thinly disguised story of Peter’s star-crossed love. Sturgis’s novel is also (in what has now become almost a convention in self-reflective fiction) cutely called The Widow’s Daughter. We’re made aware that the events of the early 1940s culminated in a serious fall from grace for Peter. We can’t help but suspect this is linked to the mystery surrounding the Walters family.

The Widow’s Daughter is a highly competent novel, especially from a first-timer. The ambitious double narrative is executed with complete assurance. Auckland of the period is evoked vividly and in impressive detail, without scholarly exhibitionism. More critically, both the older and the younger versions of Peter Sokol are excellent characters, about whom it is easy to care (and Cartwright is a delightfully noxious foil). But it doesn’t amount to a complete success. The revelation of the mystery – complete with villain’s monologue – is a little melodramatic, and undermines the rest of the author’s excellent work.

Carl Nixon is an accomplished playwright and a skilful practitioner of short fiction, and has a previous, highly acclaimed novel (Rocking Horse Road) to his credit. His second, Settlers’ Creek, is a worthy follow-up. It creates a strong dramatic premise: Box Saxton’s teenage stepson has committed suicide, and as Box labours to come to terms with this horror, the boy’s birth father arrives on the scene and claims the body for burial at his turangawaewae up the line in Kaipuna.

Box isn’t having this. So far as he’s concerned, he’s Mark’s real father, and if ancestry dictates the right to determine what happens to the boy’s mortal remains, then it’s the sap to which the scion has been grafted rather than the original rootstock that counts. Box sets out to recover the body, and nothing and no one – not the threats of Mark’s whanau nor the entreaties of a kuia, his grandmother; not even the erosion of Box’s own claim to the moral high ground – will deflect him.

Nixon’s prose is, as ever, effortless. Box Saxton is a great character, bloody, bold and resolute, and the New Zealand that he evokes is completely recognisable (so recognisable, in fact, that you wonder why the author needs to disguise his settings with fictitious placenames). You can see what has drawn the playwright to the instances of real-life, culturally motivated bodysnatching, and it’s easy to admire his tactful unpicking of society’s responses to them (especially the exchange with a racist cray fisherman). But something nags. Box seems curiously unconcerned with the burning question: why did Mark do it? There just doesn’t seem to be enough information to explain this attitude, and we’re left with something flawed, a beautifully crafted table, say, with one leg a fraction shorter than the others.

You get the sense that Kelly Ana Morey’s fourth novel, Quinine, is intended to be her breakthrough. She and her publisher have enjoyed both success and acclaim with her work, but there has been a gnawing sense that hers is a talent yet to find a project worthy.

In her acknowledgements, she expresses gratitude to editor-par-excellence Anna Rogers, with whom Huia saw fit to partner her through the journey as she tackled her first historical novel. You can’t help but wonder whether Morey is playfully referring to this relationship when she writes:

Marta had been employed by [novelist] Sophia’s publishers in the vague hope that a secretary would keep their writer’s worst excesses and inaccuracies in check, especially now that Sophia had embarked on a novel, historical in style, in order to silence her many male critics.

Certainly, Morey’s first books – the acclaimed Bloom and Grace is Gone – polarised readers and reviewers, attracting as many brickbats for self-indulgence and ill-discipline as bouquets for the natural exuberance and imaginative virtuosity of her prose.

Not so here. In Quinine, Morey is on a tight rein indeed (if you discount the rather needless digressions in the main story that encroach on the novel’s latter stages). She has recourse to showy, obscure words here and there: thin people are “etiolated”, and the texture of a snakeskin is “friable ophidian silkiness”, but for the most part, the writing is very controlled, clean and clear.

Quinine tells the story of Marta von Tempsky, who marries a German copra planter and accompanies him to turn-of-the-20th-century New Guinea to pursue her own dreams of adventure and exploration. Her husband Bernard betrays her (inevitably as it seems: what colonist in fiction could forbear to take a mistress somewhere along the way?), and the man to whom Marta herself is attracted is unavailable to her. Worse, British victory in WWI sees the German colony of New Guinea handed over lock, stock and barrel (including the property and livelihoods of German nationals) to the Australians.

While Morey does an impressive job of evoking the collision of strait-laced German society with the sultry, exotic jungle of New Guinea, there’s a yawning absence. The story is wholly concerned with the European planters to the virtually complete exclusion of the Kanakas and their world. Artistic justifications may be available, but this omission weakens the plausibility of the whole. Marta and her compatriots may not have been that involved or even interested in the natives, but they can’t have lived in such hermetic isolation as Quinine would have us believe.

Probably more to the point, however, is the lack of purpose that the book suffers. It’s clear that Morey intends a secret from Marta’s past to be the narrative engine tugging us along, but when it’s revealed, it lacks horsepower. That leaves us with the sense that Quinine is an exercise, an attempt to prove a point. OK: Kelly Ana Morey can do “straight”. But those who admired her previous novels will find Quinine rather wan and listless, like a spirited horse broken to the saddle.

 

John McCrystal is a Wellington writer and reviewer. 

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