Changes of heart and mind, John McCrystal

Pentimento
Rosemary Wildblood
Wily Publications, $30.00,
ISBN 9781927167090

The Fall of Light
Sarah Laing
Vintage, $38.00,
ISBN 9781775533030

Settling into a novel can be a lot like going away on holiday with people you don’t know, or settling into a new flat. You’re meeting and getting to know a whole bunch of people for the first time. You hope you’ll like the principal characters or, at the very least, find them interesting: if you don’t, a long ride looms.

Novels are sometimes divided into two kinds: plot-driven and character-driven. But even in a so-called “plot-driven” novel, where the characters are subordinated as objects of interest to the journey that gets them where they’re going, character still matters: if you can’t believe in the characters, their lives, their emotions, their hopes, their dreams, it’s hard to care about what happens to them. The success or failure of a novel depends to a very large extent upon the ability of the author to get you to believe in them. Mere description is not enough: hair and eye colour, body shape and height, gender, age – it’s all just thumbing clay into the likeness of a living person. It takes a touch of magic to work that Pygmalionesque transformation by which a character in fiction comes into being.

It seems, for the duration of part one of Rosemary Wildblood’s second novel, Pentimento, that we are entering a character-driven novel. It’s a conventional enough opening: young and aspiring painter Cliff Padget first claps eyes on Serena Worsley when she stands in as a last-minute replacement for the model in his life-drawing class. She is, we are told from the outset, beautiful:

Everything about the model was pale and pearly – the hair, the wide grey eyes and luminous skin – each lissom line of her standing up to their scrutiny. At Megan’s request she tipped her head further to the light. Her face, surrounded by the profusion of light hair, was so arresting that many of those sketching her breathed out an audible sigh.

 

Naturally, Cliff is smitten, and engineers a meeting. They become a couple and soon marry, although their relationship is up and down: Serena is anything but serene by nature. She is a bundle of nerves and ambition, probably (it is later speculated) bipolar. Cliff hangs in there, and even forgives a dalliance between Serena and his best mate and art school buddy, Doyle Fletcher. But it all ends tragically, the first of a number of surprises the novel springs upon the reader.

The trouble with Serena’s character is that while she is not the “main character” of the novel, she is intended to be pivotal nonetheless, a conditioning influence on Cliff’s character. A pentimento, after all, is the showing-through of a painting that has been painted over, often revealing changes of heart on the part of the artist (hence the word, from the Italian for repentance).  And yet, while we are told how “arresting” and “amazing” Serena is, we never quite manage to see it for ourselves. She doesn’t dazzle us as she dazzles those around her.

The main character of Pentimento turns out to be Rachel, whom Cliff meets as the fiancée of an executive in the company sponsoring a major New Zealand exhibition tour he is conducting. Cliff lives and works in New York these days: he has realised his ambitions, or is in the process of doing so. We know (because we have been told) that Cliff can be a smooth operator when he wants to, and he deploys some of this charm on Rachel.  Then, it seems, it’s only a matter of time before the stars will uncross themselves and they will be together. The various impediments – Rachel’s fiancé (whom we are encouraged to dislike from the outset), distance, Cliff’s grief – will fall away. There will, surely, be a happy ending. But Wildblood seems to be interested in the effects of the unforeseen upon our best-laid plans, and works hard to ensure that we take nothing for granted.

While Pentimento’s narrative arc is well-managed, the characterisation is a little weak, which means the novel realises only some of its potential. The author prefers to tell us about the characters rather than to show us what they’re like.  A number of the characters are given the same mannerisms of speech. Serena, Rachel and Cliff all use the slightly unusual phrase, “This is true”, which has a mildly homogenising effect – although several different characters are speaking, it’s the author’s voice you can hear.

It’s hard to like Rudyard Chapelle, the main character of Sarah Laing’s second novel, The Fall of Light. He’s a design nazi, compulsively tidy, the kind of bloke who will fly into fits of rage when his partner and their children drop blobs of glue on his furniture when they’re making craft objects. He admits to having favoured black polo necks in his youth, and while he has won awards for his designs, he has reached a stage in his career where he will continue to push the boundaries and dare to resent his clients for their philistinism when they reject his designs as too radical. He’s arrogant and irascible, and incapable, it seems, of giving credit where it’s due to promising juniors in his architecture practice.

Rudy lives alone in his designer house in the bushy west of Auckland; his wife, the beautiful Yasmin, has left him, and one of his teenaged daughters is exhibiting a worrying aversion to food.

Then one day Rudy crashes his Vespa, and while he makes a good recovery, it is something of a wake-up call. He begins to have recurring dreams, set in a fantastic city that has likely been inspired by cityscapes conjured up in his favourite novel, Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino. A girl is being stalked through this dreamscape by a tiger. She is literally rooted to the floor as the tiger approaches. Another woman – or the same woman – shows him how to grow buildings from pomegranate seeds, and a final confrontation happens in a room that is like the interior of a pomegranate fruit. The dream is suggestively sexual, the buildings phallic and the pomegranate associated with nubile femininity.

We know all this because the dream sequence is carried through the main narrative in pictures. Besides being an accomplished writer of prose, Laing is an illustrator (she has designed the covers of all three of her published volumes of fiction), and each chapter opens with a series of pictures. Conceptually, it’s an elegant way of depicting the goings-on in Rudy’s seething subconscious occurring in parallel to the main narrative. It could have been distracting, but it is used with appropriate restraint.

In the aftermath of his crash, Rudy’s world begins to wobble. He makes the acquaintance of Laura, a strange, pregnant woman who has recently shifted into a neighbouring house, and whom he finds helping herself to his quinces one day. It becomes clear there are moves afoot to nudge him out of his architectural firm. And for reasons that aren’t clear to him – perhaps it has something to do with the fact that Laura gave up her first child for adoption – Rudy begins for the first time in his life to wonder whether he ought to try tracking down his own birth mother.

The story of The Fall of Light is low-key, essentially that of a control freak learning to loosen his grip on the wheel. It’s a risky enterprise, because ultimately we’re supposed to care about Rudy’s chances of turning over a new leaf: the danger is that we’ll take such a dislike to him along the way that we won’t consider him worthy of a happy ending.

What makes the novel work is that the characters are strong. None of them are especially likeable, but they are wholly credible. Laing has little difficulty creating credible males: both Rudy, with his paroxysms of possessive jealousy, and his best mate Greg ring true, as does their occasionally turbulent mateship. Laura is interesting, too, and the moment when Rudy’s character and the novel both come alive is when Greg’s mother arrives to look after him, and gives him a shave. The intimacy, the resonances of their relationship when he was a boy, the ghost of her husband and his father … it’s a well-drawn, nuanced human moment. It feels real.

 

John McCrystal is a Wellington writer and reviewer.

 

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