Characters from the past, Elizabeth Heritage 

The Naturalist
Thom Conroy
Vintage, $38.00,
ISBN 9781775536482

Lives We Leave Behind
Maxine Alterio
Penguin, $38.00,
ISBN 9780143565710

The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt
Tracy Farr
Fremantle Press, $35.00,
ISBN 9781922089465

Here we have a trio of historical novels that, with varying degrees of success, bring characters and environments from our past (real and imagined) to life: The Naturalist by Thom Conroy, Lives We Leave Behind by Maxine Alterio, and The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt by Tracy Farr.

The Naturalist tells the story of Ernst Dieffenbach, a German naturalist and ethnologist who visited Aotearoa in 1839 under the auspices of – but in philosophical opposition to – the now-infamous New Zealand Company. Of the three novels, this is the one most grounded in fact: Dieffenbach was a real person and an interesting one, worthy of study. As Te Ara The Encyclopedia of New Zealand says: “[He made] penetrating and humane observations about the plight of the Māori before the rising tide of European settlement. Dieffenbach looked at New Zealand with the fresh and sensitive eye of a nineteenth-century liberal.”

The outstanding strength of The Naturalist is the sense it contains an early Aotearoa on the cusp of full-blown colonisation. We can feel the change in the air, the trepidation of a people who feel uneasy about the newcomers but have no real power to stop them. Conroy has researched the history meticulously, and the end-matter of his book contains helpful notes on sources, scenes and people.

But where Conroy’s research has contributed to his book’s strength, it has also become a weakness. David Hill, in his review for The New Zealand Herald, wrote:

It’s not easy to turn historical figures into satisfying fictional characters. The biographical facts limit them and the research often burdens them. Authors feel obliged to acknowledge each segment of their subject’s life, and find it hard to resist sharing the fascinating details which frequently fascinate only them.

 

Although Hill then goes on to say that Conroy has not fallen into this trap, I think he has: the book felt too long and too tied to its source data. As a result, Conroy’s Ernst Dieffenbach becomes tiresome: unremittingly earnest and so humourless I found him difficult to engage with.

Physically, The Naturalist is very pleasing: well designed for Random House by Carla Sy. I particularly liked the feathers between sections, and the pages with a single black and white illustration of an animal, shell or flower: the kind of thing to catch the attention of a curious naturalist. It has also been typeset with a meticulousness worthy of Conroy or Ernst himself, with macrons for te reo  Māori and umlauts for Deutsch used scrupulously correctly. Ka pai.

Lives We Leave Behind takes us forward nearly 80 years to WWI, and follows the fortunes of a group of Kiwi nurses who leave Aotearoa to serve in Egypt and France. Although set in real places amidst factual events, the protagonists, Addie and Meg, are fictional creations. As a work of historical fiction, I found Lives We Leave Behind more successful than The Naturalist: although it has clearly been extremely well researched (and once again features helpful endnotes), it wears this authorial endeavour much more lightly.

The strength of Lives We Leave Behind is the sense of the dehumanisation of large-scale wartime medical enterprises. The wounded soldiers become inputs in a bloody machine, a stupefying series of anatomical calamities. The sheer exhaustion of this kind of nursing is well drawn, and I found it interesting to read a WWI book that focusses on women but that is also set in (or very near) the theatres of war, within earshot of the guns.

As with The Naturalist, though, the vividness of the setting comes at the expense of character. Lives We Leave Behind is told from alternating points of view between the two protagonists. But the voices of Addie and Meg are too little differentiated: I often had to flip back a few pages to check whose head I was in. Similarly, the rest of the cast tend to blur. As Feby Idrus put it in her review in Critic:

It feels strange to be more interested in a novel’s historical setting and background than in its characters … it’s hard to shed a tear over a supporting character’s death when you can’t remember if she’s the religious one or the one with the red hair.

 

I could also have done without the slut-shaming – Meg has a sexual relationship and is punished with multiple bereavements; Addie is a good girl who, it is implied, ends up safely married.

Physically, again, Lives We Leave Behind is well done. Alice Bell’s cover design succeeds in giving an accurate idea of the book’s contents. I would be intrigued to learn the identity of the nurse in the photograph on the front – but perhaps she, like so many Kiwi WWI soldiers in the Berry Boys photography collection, has been left nameless by history.

The third in our trio of historical novels is the least factually accurate, and by far the best piece of writing (I do not think these things are correlated). Farr’s The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt, written in the first person, is the octogenarian Lena telling us the story of her life, from 1910 until the 1990s, and particularly of her career as a theremin player.

A theremin is an electronic musical instrument that is played without touch. Theremins require their players to have a peculiar grace and lightness, a feeling for music independent of physical sensation, but still with the tightly controlled fine motor skills of the highly trained musician. Lena becomes the first person in the world to master the newly invented theremin as a classical musician and an artist: in return, theremin playing becomes the defining activity of her life. (If you’d like more information, look up Clara Rockmore, who Farr says served as “a starting point” for Lena.)

I completely believe in Lena’s musicianship. It’s not easy to convey music in prose, but Farr manages it. From Lena’s earliest self, she has memories of making and feeling sounds and rhythms. She has that driven tirelessness that leads her to spend hours upon hours practising – first the piano, then the cello, then the wonderfully strange and new theremin. Her resulting fame is part of the story, but we get the feeling that’s not really the point: Lena has the artist’s continual need to create and refine.

Lena’s life is exotic and fascinating: early childhood in colonial Singapore; boarding-school days in Perth; a brief, disastrous stint in Malacca (where she discovered opiates, which develop into a lifelong addiction); and then, gloriously, a young adulthood in swinging Sydney, where she embraces the two loves of her life – the theremin and the modernist artist Beatrix Carmichael. Her story is told in flashback, partially to us and partially to Maureen Patterson, a Kiwi filmmaker and biographer who wants to make Lena’s biopic.

Lena Gaunt is a powerfully imagined character possessed of a vivid emotional landscape. Her sensuality is intensely evoked, not only through her music and relationships but through her lifelong love of the sea. The book begins and ends with Lena in the water: “How well it makes me feel, how calm; how light and how heavy at the same time: like heroin – a little bit like heroin.” Despite this openness, it is easy to forget that Lena is a junkie, albeit a highly functioning one. I was struck by the low-key way her addiction is presented throughout the book. Farr says, “I liked the idea of opium-smoking as an old-fashioned, almost genteel, turn-of-the-century pastime.” Unlike many narratives of addiction, Lena’s need for heroin is a constant background hum, rather than a centre-stage crisis of desperation and redemption.

As I reflect on this trio of historical novels, I am struck by the way the protagonists seem to have seeped into the prose style – or perhaps the other way around. Ernst Dieffenbach, like Conroy’s writing, is diligent and methodical. Addie, like Alterio’s prose, is assiduous and unassuming. But it is undoubtedly The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt that steals the show. Lena, and Farr’s writing, charm, delight and seduce. Go read, and let yourself be played.

Elizabeth Heritage is a publishing professional based in Wellington and online at www.elizabethheritage.co.nz.

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