Unearthing skeletons, John McCrystal

Daughters of Messene
Maggie Rainey-Smith
Mākaro Press, $35.00, ISBN 9780994117267

Something Else
David Parkyn (Sally Griffin illus)
Piedog Press, $38.00, ISBN 9780473321505

“There are only two or three human stories,” as Willa Cather once said, “and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before.” It is as true in literature as it is in life, which is why, for all the apparently endless ingenuity of storytellers, most narratives end up fitting a mere handful of genres.

Take the skeletons-in-the-closet genre, for example. It’s a common gambit for the writer of character-driven novels to employ: a character is introduced, and a sort of dance of the seven veils ensues in which we (and often the character themselves) cop enough glimpses to build a picture, reach an epiphany.

Across three novels, it has become almost a modus operandi for Maggie Rainey-Smith; in her third, Daughters of Messene, the skeletons are both literal and figurative. When Artemis, the New Zealand-born, Melbourne-domiciled daughter of a recently deceased Greek émigrée to New Zealand, sets off to take her mother’s ashes back to the old country, she wears a necklace made of a gold tooth around her neck. She doesn’t know the story behind it, but it is plain as soon as she is enfolded in the possessive embrace of her Greek aunt that she is destined to find it out. The necklace was clutched in her mother Nysa’s lifeless hand when she was found on the floor by her neighbour, and while her friends – fellow émigrés – don’t know the details of its history, either, they know it was important to Nysa and insist that it must travel with Artemis back to Greece.

The trip that was supposed to have been a sentimental journey for Nysa – the first time she would have returned to her homeland since she fled the horrors of civil war in the immediate aftermath of WWII – becomes a voyage of discovery for Artemis. Besides the morbid relic around her neck, she has with her a number of recordings her mother made for her, all rather pathetically intended for her to hear while Nysa was away in Greece. She also has the wealth of memories, often starkly contradictory, that her mother’s sister Daria and the two ancient rival lovers of her late great-uncle George, Eleni and Petroula, possess, even if these are accessed only with difficulty and when certain stars align. There are silences in all of the available records. What, for example, was the name of Artemis’s grandmother, of whom everyone swears Artemis is the dead-spit, and why does no one speak of her? Why was Eleni once in prison, and whose side was George on in the confused and brutal civil war?

In the best scene in the book, Artemis attends as George’s bones are exhumed in the peculiar Greek ritual of ektafi, in which human remains are disinterred and placed in an ossuary. Daria and Petroula produce the bones of Artemis’s grandmother, minus the skull: yet another partial answer, and a whole raft of new questions. Artemis produces her mum’s ashes. Skeletons everywhere.

Rainey-Smith writes with great precision and clarity and possesses a travel writer’s acute eye for detail. The single most richly realised character portrait in Daughters of Messene is that of Greece itself. She not only depicts the modern-day Greece through which Artemis travels, but also the ways in which that country’s history, ancient and modern, bleeds into its present. The bitter civil war that flung Nysa and a few dozen of her compatriots halfway around the world to New Zealand tore families apart in worse ways, too, and the festering grievances and contestable testimonies continue to stunt lives.

Curiously enough, the least satisfactory character is Artemis herself. She has all the attributes – a narrative arc (as the silences in her history are filled and she comes to understand her mother, she discovers the courage to take control of her own life), love interests old and new, a sense of humour and a store of memories – but, for all that, she seems strangely lifeless. She serves the story, linking the character of the exiled Nysa to her family back in Greece and in time. She is like a drone that carries the camera across the landscape that the author wishes to survey. Nonetheless, Daughters of Messene is a well-written, rewarding read, and tells one of those human stories that is even now repeating fiercely in our daily papers. It does no harm to read it so well told.

The project is broadly similar in David Parkyn’s first novel, Something Else. When we first meet him, Danny is living in a kind of limbo, working by day in a boatyard and retiring at night to his squat in a building scheduled for demolition, where he is confronted by blank canvases and a battered, dusty paintbox. He is blocked, artistically speaking – or more accurately, frozen; he is under the malign influence of skeletons in his closet.

The novel takes us forwards, as Danny’s employer, mate and mentor, the rough-as-guts Troon, readies his boat for sea and hatches a vague plan to put her to work fetching an iceberg from the Southern Ocean in order to sell the meltwater to a thirsty world. And it also takes us back in time, to Danny’s childhood amongst Auckland’s bohemian art set. He is the son of Rain, a gentle hippy girl who takes a room in a Freeman’s Bay flophouse. Troon is around back then, too, and so is an aspiring artist (nick)named Owl, and a working artist named Carla, and an art lecturer named Clem. With so many people around him sketching and painting, it’s sort of inevitable that Danny will pick up a pencil at some point, too. He has no shortage of willing tutors nor, it turns out, is he short of talent.

But life in the counterculture is complicated. Sexual tensions and artistic jealousies create all manner of stresses and strains, and when Clem introduces everyone to LSD, bad craziness ensues. There is a body count. Danny feels he – and, more particularly, his art – is to blame.

Where Rainey-Smith’s sentences and storytelling are clear, spare and direct, Parkyn’s are allusive, oblique, convoluted. Words are often chosen as much for their alliterative, assonant or consonant heft as for their expository potential. What is intended to be rich and lyrical can make for heavy weather for the reader. It is no coincidence that the best passage of Something Else is the period in the past from which Danny’s wounds arise, for it is much more plainly told. Indeed, the past strand of the double narrative is immeasurably more compelling than the present. Crucially, while the characters are interesting, they tend to sound the same, whether wise-cracking or debating artistic technique. Only the unpleasant Clem and the fragile Rain seem to have independent inner lives.

The freshness of Something Else – besides Sally Griffin’s lovely, expressionistic illustrations at the head of each chapter – is that it tells a story from our recent history that has seldom been told: the death of all those lush, hippy dreams in the arid, consumerist wasteland of the 21st century. The abiding image is that of the good-hearted Troon who has lived through it all, out there as the climate changes and sea levels rise, doing what he knows best: keeping the ocean out of the boat.

John McCrystal is a Wellington reviewer.

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