Music boxes and willows, Edmund Bohan

The Song Journey
T E Scott
Scott Publishing, $37.00,
ISBN 9780473328863

Napoleon’s Willow
Joan Norlev Taylor
RSVP Publishing, $30.00,
ISBN 9780987658784

One of the attractions of historical fiction is its infinite variety. For far too long in New Zealand’s curious literary history, it has been a victim of intellectual snobbery and academic disdain. No longer, if one can judge by the sheer number of historical novels that have surfaced here during the last 20 years and their popularity with our reading public. We have caught up at last with what has been happening in the wider American, British and European markets for decades. We have matured since the stifling times in which I was growing up: when “proper NZ Lit” was jealously regarded as simply poetry and “serious” novels (very serious, dreary even); when solemn academics and agonising poets and short story writers searched in vain for the “great New Zealand novel”. Thank God we no longer bother! Yet historical fiction’s very diversity and popularity also creates its own problems for those with tidy minds who insist their genres must be clearly defined. We know about historical crime, saga, romance and so on, but what about time travel?

Tracey Scott is an American writer living in New Zealand, and The Song Journey is no mere traditional saga but a “back to the future” time travelogue. It opens on the day a once famous American singer, Jules MacAllister, known familiarly as Etty and aged 91, is visited by her great-grand-daughter Julia, an ambitious 20-year-old music student and almost her exact double in appearance and musical abilities, wanting to use her piano to practise for a music exam. Etty, reduced to “a hollow, emaciated shell, of a woman” apparently lost in dreams, revives enough to indicate a box, for which she gives Julia a key before she lapses again into unconsciousness and death. That key unlocks a music box in an attic of Julia’s New York home in which there are five yellowing pieces of old sheet music, and the playing of each sends Jules back in time to five different locations: a concert hall in early 20th-century Chicago; involvement in an incident during the Vietnam War; to Queenstown in wartime New Zealand; to visit Etty herself in 1971 at Carnegie Hall, New York; and, finally, to a Louisiana plantation poised on the brink of the American Civil War.

Julia has inherited this gift of time travel from Etty, and she travels with all the attitudes and implacably liberal ideas of a modern and emancipated young American woman. During each visit, she is recognised by someone as a being from the future and learns something of significance to her family: secrets suppressed or hitherto unknown. She encounters the great loves of her existence: an idealised noble-minded slave-owning Southern gentleman and philanthropist, whom she meets twice; in Queenstown, an equally wise and almost unbelievable young poet-shepherd fated to die a war hero; a dead uncle wrongly condemned as a Vietnam War deserter. She grows in self-awareness, too, discovering the “social mores” of the past 170 years, as the author puts it, and she even gains some knowledge of her future.

There is much about music in this novel, for Scott is a musician. It is a curious fact that novelists are seldom at their best describing music or the musical profession, which is usually outside their immediate experience. So they risk wallowing in pretentious artiness that, for the professional musician-reader grates as simply absurd, often comically so. Having survived as a professional singer for over 40 years, I assure you that successful musicians, and especially singers, are far more hard-headed and unsentimental than their listeners, devoted fans or most novelists imagine, or than some highly publicised divas pretend in public. One simply has to be robust in every way to survive in an intensively competitive world in which reputation and livelihood are potentially at stake in every performance. Scott is a rarity in that, usually, she does make her performer characters ring true. Etty, in particular, whom Julia meets (sundered from her family) late in her highly successful career and asking herself: “When the spotlight fades, does the self fade also?” Scott’s highly coloured prose and her sometimes rather stagey characters do not always convince, but she does capture the loneliness and egotism of the great (and not so great) singer as Etty debates with her time-travelling great granddaughter the ultimate futility of a life of fame, and asks again: “did singing on a stage constitute value?” It’s a question I’ve heard too often from those who have sacrificed family, and even close friends, for the sake of their ambition.

Joan Norlev Taylor’s Napoleon’s Willow is as different a novel from The Song Journey as it is possible to be. Norlev Taylor is a New Zealand writer and academic living in Britain, and she sets out to recount not only the already familiar story of how a cutting from the willows beside Napoleon’s tomb on St Helena was transplanted to Akaroa, but also to “explore what it really meant” to be a single woman colonist in 19th-century New Zealand. The focus of her main narrative is the French and British colonial rivalry surrounding the foundation of Akaroa, and it moves from St Helena and Wivenhoe in Essex to Banks Peninsula via Le Havre, Rochefort, Sydney and the Bay of Islands, as she follows the fortunes of her three main characters: François Lelievre, an historical figure whose descendants are still prominent in the region; the entirely fictional Marianne, a young half-English, half-French teacher; and, equally fictional, Manoako-uri, Ngāi Tahu healer and man of mystery.

François is an ardent Bonapartist blacksmith who takes the cuttings from Napoleon’s grave in the belief that he can thereby transport Napoleon’s spirit to the new land. After visiting Akaroa on a French whaler and making friends with feared and mysterious Manoako-uri (also known as Matthieu Le Bon), he returns there as one of the Nanto-Bordelaise Company’s settlers in 1840 to find his cherished cutting has survived and is flourishing. Marianne, meanwhile, pregnant but determinedly resolute, has been abandoned by her gentleman lover and boldly sails for New South Wales alone. She marries the kindly and loveable first mate, suffers a miscarriage during a storm and, in Sydney, after a brief time of happiness, is widowed. She next becomes the governess for an English official and his family and moves with them to Kororareka in the Bay of Islands in 1840 where the British are establishing their government over all New Zealand. There she encounters the French Roman Catholic missions and, after repelling the unwelcome advances of her employer, becomes Bishop Pompallier’s housekeeper and disciple and is inevitably suspected (falsely) of being his mistress, too, when she goes with him down to Banks Peninsula. There is tension between the French settlers and the arriving British officials, and much confusion over precisely to whom the local Ngāi Tahu chiefs have actually sold their land.

Marianne’s situation as a single young woman intent on setting up her own school is made difficult again when both the good, gentle François Lelievre and the unpleasant, bullying British magistrate Charles Robinson are attracted to her. Even worse for her reputation with most of Akaroa’s settlers, however, Marianne falls (scandalously in their eyes) under the spell of charismatic Manoako-uri/Matthieu Le Bon who comes over as rather too much the idealised noble savage. Finally, in very dramatic circumstances, the healing powers of Napoleon’s highly symbolic willow triumph. There is, indeed, much symbolism (often heavily emphasised), and we are reminded too often that the name Marianne is a symbolic one for the “spirit of France”. Regrettably, characters lack depth, in spite of Norlev Taylor’s best intentions: the good are too noble and idealised; the not so pleasant – and especially the English officials – unrelievedly odious. There is also, I fear, too much history, baldly told, and it dominates too much of this book. That is one of the very many traps the historical novelist has to learn to avoid.

Edmund Bohan, a Christchurch-based historian, biographer and historical novelist, was formerly an international opera and concert singer.

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