Foreign countries, Kathryn Walls

The Bakehouse
Joy Cowley
Gecko Press, $20.00,
ISBN 978177650072

The Knot Impossible: A Tale of Fontania
Barbara Else
Gecko Press, $25.00,
ISBN 978177650041

The Girl Who Rode the Wind
Stacy Gregg
HarperCollins, $25.00,
ISBN 9780008124304

 

Joy Cowley’s The Bakehouse is framed by an encounter between Bert, a widower in his late 80s, and his 14-year-old great-grandson Eruiti. Eruiti has turned up on Bert’s doorstep in the hope of discovering the history of his great-great-aunt Betty. His questions prompt Bert’s recollection of how, during WWII (when he was 11), he and his sisters (15-year-old Betty and six-year-old Meg) discovered a young deserter (Donald) living in a disused bread factory.

Cowley’s novel invites comparison with Maurice Gee’s 1984 classic, The Champion, whose adult narrator recalls how during WWII he and his friends had tried to protect a black American soldier (Jack) who had, having spent a period of R and R in their home town, deserted. But The Champion has (unusually for Gee) a sunny atmosphere, notwithstanding Jack’s eventual death by drowning – that death being heroic and inspirational. The Bakehouse is as dark as the rat-infested shell of a building in which much of the action takes place. It is unflinching in its dissection of human frailty. Betty falls in love with Donald, and Bert (having seen the couple kissing, and motivated in part by pre-pubescent ignorance and fear of sexuality) reports the fugitive’s whereabouts to the military police. By that stroke he poisons the life of his sister. That Bert has, for his part, remained in a mental and emotional straitjacket ever since is implied by the whole structure of the novel. Bert’s recollections remain within his own semi-senile mind. They are not shared with Eruiti, whose visit is forgotten by Bert as soon as it is over. In the award-winning Dunger, published in 2013, Cowley projects a wholly positive relationship between two children and their entirely loving and lovable grandparents. In The Bakehouse, she explores the saddest of alternatives.

There is a question as to whether the fictional scenario according to which children protect adult fugitives (as modelled by Huckleberry Finn) is credible. Certainly, like Gee before her, Cowley attempts to make it so, partly by having some adults cooperate, if tacitly, with the children’s endeavours. What makes the motif compelling is its reversal of the normal adult-child relationship. Playing the adult, the child Bert was (naturally enough) inadequate. But his adult voice has a certain charm, and one longs for him to forgive his child self. The novel is perfectly constructed and it is written in beautifully simple prose, the idioms characterising Bert and his times with almost painful accuracy.

The Knot Impossible, a steam-punk novel by Barbara Else, is also skilfully written. In many respects, however, it is the polar opposite of The Bakehouse. First, its hero Rufkin, who appears to have been rejected by his brilliant theatrical parents (the rough kin?), accepts the responsibility that is thrust upon him when he comes across an abandoned four-year-old whose only word is “Help”. Rufkin goes on to find himself at the centre of a politically rightful cause and wins the day. Second, the fantasy world into which Rufkin was born is (in accordance with the steam-punk sub-genre) characterised by a mixture of Victorian technology (sailing ships), folkloric mythology (ogres), Else’s own inventions (a plague of cave lizards), and magic. Interestingly, while Hogwarts is capable of surprising and thrilling Harry Potter (and is by the same token a closed book to Muggles), Rufkin’s world is extraordinary only to the reader, who is left to pick up its ways as they emerge in the course of the narrative. Rather brilliantly, there is no exposition, although there is a map (by Sam Broad) that is not only enticing in the normal way, but actually useful. The incident-packed story is one of those that might have gone on for ever.

My own satisfaction was limited by the arbitrariness of the machinery (and I use this term in its literary sense of enabling devices, although it might also be applied to the literal mechanisms created by Else) and of the associated plot developments. I expect, however, that the intended audience has been and will be thoroughly entertained both by the action and by Else’s seemingly irrepressible wit. This wit characterises not only the narrative, but Rufkin and some other characters. One of those who cannot resist a pun is the naval veteran whose name is Murgott (sea god?), who – with a dry humour typical of the novel as a whole – dismisses Rufkin’s theatrically-informed suggestions with “You had better keep your background in the background.”

It will be obvious that Else’s title, while it is literalised in the narrative by a realistically impossible collision of sailing ships arriving from opposite directions, is intended to inspire in its readers the self-confidence that its hero has gained by the end of the story. Indeed, the novel takes on a psychoanalytical character in its final chapters. Rufkin braves what everyone believes to be the father of all dragons in order to protect his four-year-old protégé. But it emerges that this dragon is overwhelmed by grief over the loss of its child. Its suffering mirrors Rufkin’s own. The dragon’s child is restored, and we can see that Rufkin will likewise re-join his family – now that he has, as Bruno Bettelheim would have seen it, become his own father and mother anyway.

Bettelheim interprets the animal companions common in fairy tales and fables as instincts that children must learn to control. Lola, the 12-year-old female hero of Stacy Gregg’s The Girl Who Rode the Wind, desires her stallion Nico almost erotically, and she sees this desire as mutual: “I ran to him, burying my face deep in the coarse strands of his flaxen mane. ‘Of course I came,’ I whispered.” At the same time, Lola wants to master Nico in order to defeat her brutal male competitors in the Palio, the famous Sienese street race, in which women scarcely ever ride. But true lovers do not assume control; they yield it. Perhaps one of the attractions of pony books is that they project the gratification of instincts that are, in the context of human relationships, incompatible. As their pre-pubescent girl readers are soon to discover, people are not like ponies.

Like The Bakehouse, Gregg’s novel is founded upon an interaction between the generations. But the communication that is stifled at birth in the former flourishes in the latter to the point of running wild. The narrator-protagonist Lola and her Italian grandmother (her “Nonna”) leave Lola’s native New York for a holiday in Nonna’s former home on the outskirts of Siena. Lola’s story includes Nonna’s successive revelations about her past, revelations contained in independent chapters written in her own voice. The alternating narratives intersect and echo each other to an extent that I found almost dizzying. Lola outdoes her grandmother’s achievements as jockey (stunning though those were), and it appears that she is likely to do so in the field of male-female relationships as well. But Lola cannot in peace-time match her grandmother’s heroism in her allegiance to the anti-Fascist freedom fighters.

The historical context invoked by Nonna (which, of course, coincides with that of The Bakehouse) is sobering, as is Nonna’s burden of guilt over an action on her part that betrayed her freedom fighter brother to the Fascists, who tortured and executed him. Nonna has also suffered from disappointment in her fiancé, who (lacking her courage and determination) failed to leave with her for America as planned. But Nonna’s 1940s story is resolved in conjunction with Lola’s 21st-century adventure. The elderly woman’s conviction as to her betrayal of her brother (which was merely accidental anyway, unlike Bert’s) turns out to be baseless, and she is also reconciled with the man she once loved.

Altogether this is one of those novels in which the characters we care for turn out to be thoroughly good, and (with the exception of Nonna’s brother) to win through. Needless to say, Lola on Nico wins the Palio. The reader would feel cheated otherwise. But Gregg introduces obstacles for their own sake in order to maintain tension. She even stoops, towards the end, into tricking the reader into a disheartening reading that will be corrected a few pages further on. But, while The Girl Who Rode the Wind may be flawed, it is well-researched, interesting, and ambitious. A New Zealander of Ngāti Mahuta descent, Gregg is enjoying an immensely successful career as a writer for the international “pony club” audience.

 

Kathryn Walls is a professor in the English programme at Victoria University of Wellington.

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Posted in Children, Fiction, Literature and Review
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