The Spanish Helmet
Whare Rama Books, $32.99,
David Carnegie Young
Vanguard Press, $38.00,
No Second Chance
Steele Roberts, $29.99,
We are living in a kind of Gutenberg moment. Back in the 15th century, when Johannes Gutenberg perfected his printing press, the ground was laid for a massive democratisation of information. Europe was swiftly inundated with flyers, pamphlets, handbills and booklets pushing some barrow or another. The monopoly on the dissemination of information previously enjoyed by authority – the Church and, to a lesser extent, the State – had been broken. Anyone, within reason, could now be a controversialist, a polemicist; everyone could now speak and be heard.
New technologies are changing our world – and not just the publishing world – in ways that are no less dramatic. When the day of the electronic book finally dawns, there will be few obstacles to prevent anyone who wishes to become a published author from living the dream, for better or for worse. And even now, technological advances have made it possible for self-publishers and budget operators to produce books that look every bit as good as the real thing, free of the burden of big publishers’ overheads. The bar to publication has been lowered. Much writing that would previously have been shut out by the gatekeepers, the big risk-averse publishing houses, can now vault the wall.
Like all sublunary blessings, of course, this one is mixed. As things stand, the big houses still enjoy an advantage: they know the market and they are prepared to do to a promising manuscript whatever it needs to meet market expectations. This is where the skilled editor comes in.
Expatriate Greg Scowen’s debut novel, The Spanish Helmet, is positioned Janus-like in the present, bifurcating marketplace, at once touching its forelock to the past and squaring its jaw to face a brave new modernity. It is available on the terms of the old business model – in hard copy, through bookshops – and also the new, selling as an ebook downloadable directly from the publisher’s website.
True to the emancipated spirit of the age, the publisher, who turns out to be the author, has clearly considered expert editorial assistance to be surplus to requirements, which is a pity.
Matt Cameron, a fresh-faced archaeology lecturer in a mid-range English university, receives a phonecall from a mate in New Zealand, an amateur archaeologist who has devoted his life to proving his wacky theory that New Zealand was first colonised by Celtic peoples isn’t so wacky after all. Warren’s struck the jackpot: he’s unearthed what appears to be unequivocal evidence of ancient Celtic occupation of a site north of Auckland. He needs someone with a bit of academic cred to confirm his find.
Matt wastes little time in heading out to New Zealand and walks straight into a political minefield. The sinister-sounding Department of Cultural Identity is bent on suppressing anything that might upset the conventional narrative of the settlement of New Zealand. The National Information Security Office, a “super-secret agency” whose job it is to keep tabs on anything resembling subversive activity, has its cold eyes fixed firmly on Warren, too.
Then there’s the shadowy, racist Celtic Brotherhood, who are determined to prove whites were these isles’ original owners. Throw in a deep-sleeping double agent with a glaring conflict of interest and a secret agenda, and it’s clear Matt’s in for an interesting time. Luckily, he has Aimee, the decidedly tasty occupant of the seat next to his on the flight out, to turn to: she’s not only congenial company, but also remarkably well-informed on alternative settlement theories.
This much we learn in the first 50-odd pages. But there’s more, of course, far more. It turns out Matt’s estranged father – still alive and feebly kicking in Devonport – has been a lifelong exponent of the theory that the Spanish preceded Abel Tasman in discovering New Zealand, as deduced from the 500-year-old Spanish helmet dredged from Wellington harbour in the late 1800s. For reasons that aren’t at all clear to the reader, Matt drops his pursuit of further clues of Celtic settlement and goes looking for Spanish instead. The plot thickens … .
There are actually the bones of a good story here. There’s a rich vein of comedy to be mined in the form of New Zealand pseudo-history, and even some serious points to be made (the reader briefly entertains hopes for the politically correct dystopia evoked by the Department of Cultural Identity). But, man, did The Spanish Helmet need an editor. It’s not just distracting faux pas such as typos and malapropisms (“gunning placement” for “gun emplacement”), although there are plenty of these, and they proliferate in the last quarter of the book, as though the copy editor walked off the job at this point. It’s more than that.
Any self-respecting editor would have challenged the lazy writing – the promise made by the back-cover blurb that The Spanish Helmet is “a plot-driven novel” ought really to be read as a warning that there’s little joy to be had in the characterisation. And more fundamentally still, something would surely have been done to address the chasms in the logic. The entire premise of the novel is that there’s a political will to suppress evidence of any settlement of New Zealand prior to that of the Maori. So why does anyone care that Matt may have stumbled on proof that the Spanish were here after the Maori? And never mind that: what is the grand constitutional significance of being first, anyway?
Ay, ay, ay. If this is the brave new world of publishing, I’ll take the bag.
Coast by David Carnegie Young seems to have come to light through unconventional channels, too. It’s a Kiwi novel by a Kiwi, yet it’s been published by a United Kingdom “book packager”, a company who, for a fee, will take your manuscript and turn it into a book. Young is an experienced writer of non-fiction and, as is plain throughout Coast, capable of some lovely prose. There are moments where this novel really has you in its thrall.
It weaves together the stories of a male member of each of three generations of the Roberts family: Hector, lately arrived from Scotland; Doug, his son; and Alan, the son of the son. That spans a lot of history – most of New Zealand’s European history, as it happens. Each tells his tale in the first person, memoir-fashion, and one of the book’s strengths is the extraordinary richness of the social history research that underpins it. Another is its sense of place: the stretch of coast adjacent to the mouth of the Turakina River near Whanganui is beautifully evoked, and provides a cohesive thread through the three stories.
The author seems to have intended depicting the process by which people come to belong in a place, to recalibrate their homing instincts to new terrain, and at the same time to trace the influence of each generation upon the next, of father upon son. He succeeds in the first rather better than in the second. The three characters are not sharply enough drawn, the wealth of period detail serving to supply their outlines without ever quite filling in the blanks.
Alan, the youngest of the three, is the most convincing character; old Hector, by contrast, is more plainly an invention. Whereas the point of view is more or less evenly shared between the three throughout the novel, Hector all but disappears toward the end, and you wonder whether he needed to be there at all. After all, it’s in the testy relationship between Alan and his father Doug, a “returned man” deeply scarred by the war, that the real interest lies.
Towards the end, too, Young’s control slips. From time to time the tense shifts for no apparent reason, and Doug’s voice changes markedly, presumably where Young started to rely on his own father’s war diaries for source material. It’s at this point that the novel’s troubling shortcoming becomes evident: it hasn’t quite completed the transition from non-fiction to fiction. An editor’s firm hand – and a compliant author – would likely have got it there. Coast is a near miss – near enough to be a source of considerable regret.
Wellington writer Mark Stephenson’s debut novel No Second Chance isn’t quite eye-catching enough to have attracted the attention of a big publisher, but worthy of publication nonetheless. It tells the story of Anna Rosenberg, an Austrian Jew who arrives in New Zealand as a survivor of Auschwitz, orphaned and bereft and carrying with her a dark, guilty secret.
This little backwater of the British Empire is a world away from the sophisticated Europe of her childhood; on the other hand, it’s also as far removed as it’s possible to get from the horrors of the camps. Anna makes a go of fitting in, and meets and marries Des, a hard-case veteran of the Pacific war. It ought to have been happy-ever-after from there, but Anna’s guilt haunts her and threatens to blight her life and the lives of her husband and children.
Much of this is familiar territory, and many of the scenes – especially wanton Nazi cruelty, and even gauche Kiwi ignorance – feel like set pieces, albeit competently enough executed. Stephenson is, for the most part, careful to avoid cartoonish stereotypes and to present nuanced human behaviour. But his reach to some degree exceeds his grasp: he sets out to show the working-through of Anna’s trauma over 50 years, and its impact on her children, especially her son. There just isn’t time or space enough to develop Anna’s character fully. This is a moving story, told with quiet dignity, but much of the reader’s emotional response to the ending arises from some ritualistic sense of obligation rather than a deep and genuine empathy with Anna.
Mark Sweet’s Zhu Mao is an impressive debut, and likely to enhance Huia’s reputation as a publisher of fiction.
Scott Warren returns to China with the ashes of his wife, which he proposes to deliver to her family in accordance with Daoist doctrine. It’s a mournful journey, and not just for the obvious reason. It’s 20 years since Scott was last here: two decades ago, when he was a visiting student of architecture, he became entangled in the culture of a China that was just beginning liberalisation after its long spell of suspended animation under Mao. He received an education, and not only in Daoist architecture and the ancient art of Tai Chi: he became involved with young firebrand Sam, despite the warnings of everyone who thought this involvement would end in tears. It did, and 20 years on, they have yet to dry.
The key to Zhu Mao’s success is the careful control of information about Scott’s character. For much of the novel, he’s a mysterious figure whose motives and morals are doubtful, not unlike Meursault in Camus’s L’Étranger. The story springs few surprises, but it’s out of the ordinary and told with admirable assurance. Congratulations are due to the author – and, of course, to the editor.
John McCrystal is a Wellington reviewer.