War stories, Anne Else

Passing Through
Coral Atkinson
Dancing Tuatara, $35.00,
ISBN 9780473262693

Heartland
Jenny Pattrick
Black Swan, $37.00,
ISBN 9781775535850

Tropic of Guile
Sue McCauley
Xlibris, $42.00,
ISBN 9781483683195

All three of these novels centre on hard-won survival against the odds of poverty, violence and malice, offset by love, loyalty and friendship; but the clashes they chronicle range widely in time, place and complexity.

In Passing Through, Coral Atkinson conjures up Christchurch and Lyttelton in the aftermath of WWI, affectionately charting those apparently solid townscapes now largely destroyed. (She has remarked on how lucky she was to have researched and revisited them before the earthquakes.) But most of the action takes place well away from the wide boulevards and grand old buildings. Her run-down flats, pubs and halls are convincingly grubby, cramped, and dark, like the circumscribed lives they contain. She produces this effect with great economy and finesse, only occasionally letting her research show through.

The main characters are introduced to the reader and to each other with equal competence. It’s 1923, and all four have been battered by war and loss. Dapper, well-spoken Ro, the Englishman who calls himself a major, has lost more than his twin brother and the fingers on his left hand. But he’s smart, and has already worked out how he can make a living: “in these hard times, when so many had lost loved ones in the war or the ’flu epidemic, death was certainly the business to be in.”

One dark night he runs into Nan, a skinny little skivvy on the run from yet another predatory employer. It’s Ro’s lucky day, because Nan has the genuine gift ‒ her father called it the curse ‒ of second sight, and she is besieged by the voices of the dead. Ro knows she will be a godsend for his plan to set up séances exploiting post-war grief and longing, especially of credulous and lonely widows. But from the start, she knows exactly what he’s up to.

On Anzac Day he starts with Louisa, claiming to have known the dead husband she had met while nursing in England. At home, Louisa’s resilient daughter Poppy encounters Harry, a traumatised ex-soldier who has taken refuge in the old glasshouse. These intertwined stories unfold with, for the most part, wholly engaging vividness, humour, energy and emotion. Nan’s second sight is a difficulty: since she is impressively shown having direct experience with the dead, there seems no particular reason to believe in her conveniently recurring familiars, such as Caroline and Little Joey, as they guide her to those on “the other side” at the séances. But, at her best, Nan recalls Rebecca West’s similarly gifted family servants in The Fountain Overflows. Though these differently damaged men and women start off essentially alone in the world, they have the potential to help each other regain their lives, negotiate the rough and broken terrain of post-war New Zealand, and embark on new courses.

Heartland is a new venture for Jenny Pattrick, set in what appears to be contemporary New Zealand: the run-down former timber town of Manawa (heart), near Mt Ruapehu. Pattrick says she based it on Rangataua, where her son lives and her family has long had a cottage. As always, she tells a superbly plotted, compulsively page-turning story. The sharply focussed physical setting is almost a character in its own right. The crowded main cast play their parts with enormous conviction, energy and a measured amount of complexity: Donny Mac the innocent, determined to protect the child he thinks is his against hopeless bad mother Pansy, and slowly reaching out to fierce good mother Tracey; rich bitch Di and her evil son; stalwart Vera and secret lace-maker Bull; and the three aged McAnerney sisters, who drive the plot in surprising ways. The skiing and film-making townies muscle in too, sometimes with unforeseen benefits to the locals.

But is this really contemporary New Zealand? The troubled, eccentric, but appealing heroes and heroines prop each other up and always win through. They pride themselves on their independence from pernicious mainstream systems. With the exception of the timely anger management course in prison which helps Donny Mac cope, and the pensions which presumably sustain the older generation, the unwelcome ministrations of officialdom are to be avoided or thwarted at every turn. Somehow, things will always work out without them, even on minimum or no wages: houses and warmth will be found, children and adults will be fed and cared for, feuds will be resolved, secrets will be rendered harmless and harmony will be restored.

Maybe this really is how it works in the heartland now, but I doubt it. I see this as a backblocks yarn crossed with an old-fashioned fairytale, albeit much more optimistic and female-friendly than most earlier versions of either. Together they bolster the faint hope that somewhere this legendary New Zealand lingers on, threatened but unspoilt by the brash, superficial, greedy modern world. It’s a good story, but perhaps it’s in urgent need of an update, one that plays less easily into the self-serving mantras of the powerful.

Tropic of Guile is narrated in the present tense by Hannah, a young, attractive, apparently superficial American married to Alex, a New Zealand businessman only four years younger than her father. Right from the first page, there are ominous signs that Hannah is caught in another kind of war being waged on her by her husband, but at first she’s intent on explaining everything away and keeping him happy: “I was grateful for the luxury in which I lived and eager to prove myself a better wife than the two [in fact three, she finds out later] who had gone before me.” Besides, she is the only one who has given him two children.

As the book opens, they are on their way to settle in Fiji, where Alex plans to set up an underwater aquarium. It’s only a few months after the Rabuka coup, so his ambitious investment plans are warmly welcomed. He gets support from the highest ranks, but nothing runs smoothly. Ignorant but well-meaning, Hannah does her best to cope with her enforced idleness and isolation, and come to terms with their small island community of European landowners, expats and Fijian villagers. But Alex becomes increasingly insulting and threatening. Thirty pages in, he’s phoning from the mainland to tell her he’s bought her a plane ticket back to Christchurch: “You’re not wanted, my pet. I don’t want you and neither do your kids.” She tells herself it’s just “drunk talk, in the morning he’ll have forgotten. But what if it isnt, what if he hasnt?” Soon the threats turn to open violence and Hannah is struggling simply to stay alive.

Hannah is no stock heroine. She makes stupid mistakes and takes remarkable risks, including sexual ones. One thing consistently rings false: her alleged nationality. She comes across as a New Zealander, not an American. As for Alex, in my view this is the most striking exterior portrait of a cleverly manipulative, abusive husband in contemporary fiction. The tense, claustrophobic, at times almost unbearably frightening story of Hannah’s efforts to escape without losing her children, effectively leavened with humour, friendship and loyalty, bears witness to McCauley’s well-honed skills. Throughout, she paints a richly detailed picture of a complex, conflicted, intensely intermeshed society, seen through Hannah’s increasingly comprehending eyes.

This book has its own strange history. The text is riddled with typos and other obvious errors, and is in urgent need of editing – particularly in the later chapters, which simply go on too long and cram in too much. The back cover and online blurbs call the heroine Vicki. At first I thought McCauley, unable to find a regular publisher for such a difficult and off-putting subject, had turned to self-publishing and had unfortunately chosen Xlibris, a remarkably incompetent packager. Then I saw her letter to the Listener commenting on its review, and contacted her to find out more.

In the late 1990s, a woman contracted McCauley to write a novel about the plight of women in Fiji who were abused by their husbands and trying to retain custody of their children, but finding it extremely difficult to get any official help or obtain a fair hearing. McCauley visited Fiji with her, did her own research, and completed the book. After trying unsuccessfully to have it published here, she handed it back to the “owner”. She heard nothing more until 2013, when she received a copy of the hardback. Despite the errors and incompetence, she says she is pleased to see it finally in print.

The kind of abuse the novel describes is still distressingly common, and the latest of many reports calls urgently for a major shift to more successful ways of dealing with it. But at least it’s now better acknowledged and understood than it was in the 1990s. Technical problems aside, this book has the power to increase that understanding. A mainstream publisher should pick it up and do it justice.

 

Anne Elses e-memoir The Colour of Food is now published in print form by Awa Press.

 

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