Worlds old and new, Nicholas Reid

Purgatory
Rosetta Allan
Penguin, $30.00
ISBN 9780143571025

James Cook’s New World
Graeme Lay
Fourth Estate, $37.00
ISBN 9781775540410

There’s one current phenomenon in New Zealand literature that I’m watching with great interest. It’s the fact that, with a few honourable exceptions (Hamish Clayton’s Wulf, Owen Marshall’s The Larnachs, and the historical reconstructions of Peter Wells), all the best New Zealand historical novels are now being written by women – Paula Morris’s Rangatira, Charlotte Randall’s Hokitika Town and The Bright Side of My Condition, Sarah Quigley’s The Conductor, Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries and (with minor misgivings) Tina Makereti’s Where the Rēkohu Bone Sings.

Rosetta Allan’s debut, Purgatory, reinforces this impression. It is smart, funny, tragic and the product of some close historical research. It delves deeply into a particular sort of mentality that came to colonial New Zealand – in this case, that of an Irish Catholic peasant. Purgatory is based on real murders that took place in Otahuhu (south of Auckland) in 1865. James Stack, Irishman, ex-Fencible and petty crim, murdered the Finnegan family, a mother and four children, and buried them clumsily in the backyard of their cottage. His motive (apart from liquor) appears to have been to gain possession of the property. He was soon found out and hanged.

Allan’s boldest imaginative stroke is to have parts of the story told by the ghost of one of the murdered children, young John Finnegan, who lingers about the property with his ghostly family until such time as they receive decent Christian burial. This meshes closely with an older Catholic concept of Purgatory – stalling between Heaven and Hell until released by appropriate prayers for the dead. It also meshes with Māori rites for lifting tapu from ground defiled with blood. In Allan’s hands, it becomes a strong metaphor for old customs adapting themselves to a new land.

The ghost narrative is, however, really the framing device. Most of Purgatory is the story of James Stack, from famine and impoverishment in Ireland, through British military service, to his dabbling in crime in New Zealand. Some of this narrative is necessarily sordid, including vivid and bloody scenes of the lash being applied on a British ship, convicts in Australia being exploited as prostitutes by sex-starved soldiers and a long and grisly hanging in an Auckland jail. The bush scenes down the Great South Road, where Stack is involved in the Waikato War, are unheroic, unpleasant and painful. So are Stack’s relationships with women.

Here, though, there is something of an imaginative problem.

I think Allan’s purpose is to suggest how Stack has been brutalised by the times in which he was reared, and that this in itself was an incitement to the murders he eventually committed. Certainly, we see him making a number of bad decisions – including involvement in an earlier killing. But his transformation from gullible and innocent peasant, pushed about by circumstance, to murderer, fully responsible for what he is doing, is still rather abrupt.

Allan writes vividly. Her dialogue is plausible. Only occasionally are there lapses into archness, like the episode when a ghostly Pākehā-Māori instructs the narrating Finnegan ghost on matters of tapu, or the moment in Australia when a surgeon says sententiously to Stack:

 

New Zealand? A land of new beginnings. Much like this, I expect, with some of the old rules and some new ones too. It’s up to us what we make of it, Stack. It’s like the first page of an unwritten story. How it ends depends on us.

Fortunately, there’s not too much of this sort of thing and Purgatory, freighted by ghosts and all, gives a stark and credible re-creation of time and place.

James Cooks New World is the second of Graeme Lay’s fictionalised books about Captain Cook. The Secret Life of James Cook concerned Cook’s voyage on Endeavour (1768-71). James Cooks New World concerns his voyage on Resolution (1772-75). Like the first book, the second is based on a wealth of factual published and unpublished material about Cook, so its degree of historical accuracy is high. There is only the occasional anachronism. In the first book there was a French ship flying the tricolour 20 years before the French Revolution. In this second book, a king wants a meeting of the London Missionary Society in 1771, 24 years before it was founded.

It’s pure nitpicking for a reviewer to point this out, of course, but it is related to another problem. Lay’s fictional conceit is that Cook keeps a private journal for his wife, into which he pours the personal thoughts he cannot put in his official log. This means he gets to speak like a 21st-century secularist when he is reacting to his pious German Lutheran naturalist, Forster. Not quite anachronism, but in the same ballpark.

There’s a good, ironical, self-referencing joke near the end, when Cook reacts badly to a journalist who presumes to write about his voyages in the first person. The expedition’s encounters with icebergs are intriguing, and the scene where Cook rejects a Polynesian offer of sex is amusing. I’m finding it hard to engage with these books as real novels, however. They come across as History Lite, with neat explanatory paragraphs and self-expository dialogue to pass on the information Lay has gathered from his sources. Despite the fictional words addressed to Cook’s wife, we do not get any particular original or imaginative insight into Cook. The suspicion dawns that these books will appeal most to those without the energy to read J C Beaglehole’s Cook books. They do read easily enough, though, so that has to be a plus.

James Cooks New World ends in 1775. Presumably, Lay will turn out another volume or two of Cook’s novelised voyages before we get to Cook’s death in 1779.

 

Nicholas Reid is an Auckland historian, poet and critic who runs the weekly book blog Reid’s Reader.