Always the Islands of Memory
Vintage Books, Random Century Group, Auckland, 1991, $24.95
Noel Virtue’s fourth novel appeared in England early this year and like his third one In the Country of Salvation received favourable attention, Christopher Hawtree in The Spectator going so far as to say that ‘there is unlikely to be a finer novel published this year’. The Times Literary Supplement found In the Country of Salvation ‘towering above anything in recent New Zealand fiction’, a work that ‘should establish him as the most interesting New Zealand writer working today’. New Zealand readers are likely to rub their eyes in disbelief when encountering such statements. Even though Virtue’s first two novels, The Redemption of Elsdon Bird and Then Upon the Evil Season, were both shortlisted for the Goodman Fielder Wattie Award, few would be likely to see Virtue as a leading New Zealand novelist. In the Country of Salvation was barely mentioned for the 1991 New Zealand Book Award, and Mark Williams in his Leaving the Highway, the fullest account of recent New Zealand novels, dismissed the earlier Virtue for merely ‘repeating the habitual forms’ of the Sargeson tradition rather than extending it. Similarly, several readers of New Zealand fiction have said to me that they cannot take Virtue seriously, that his work is merely pastiche.
This new book does not answer all the questions or allay all the doubts, but it does show that Virtue is a writer to be taken note of. As two of his first three novels read as if they were translating The God Boy or The Hangover into rural Brethren terms, and as both have clearly autobiographical origins, it implied that perhaps Virtue was mining a narrow vein of personal experience that would soon be worked out. However, this work, taken along with Then Upon the Evil Season indicates that while Virtue may not be a chronicler of contemporary New Zealand, he is a genuine historical novelist of the ‘provincial’ past.
The narrative present is set about 1960, but since it is a novel of memory (four of the eleven chapters are entirely in the past), it goes back as far as the 1930s. Past and present are counterpointed well and come together at the end. There, Parnell Lark, who has been obsessed with the past (‘like a picture-show … inside her head’), and Sister, who has been repressing her painful memories, come to terms with it, put it behind them, and face what future they have left. It is a genuinely moving conclusion, and everything in the book leads up to it. The major events of rape, murder, suicide, loss and madness may read like a Gothic plot or black comedy when drawn together into a reductive list; but Virtue makes them all integral parts of the novel’s pattern.
The book, then, justifies itself as a novel and indicates that Virtue is more than a creator of literary curiosities. The style is pastiche, heightened archaic Kiwi vernacular, even in the third-person narrative prose this is pastiche also (what other writer would include the Napier earthquake, the Queen Street riots. and the Tangiwai disaster?); but it results in a coherent, effective idiosyncratic structure that, like that of Ronald Hugh Morrieson, forces us to make a space for it, however much it violates our critical patterns and expectations.
Lawrence Jones is Associate Professor of English, University of Otago, Dunedin, author of the section on the novel in the Oxford History of New Zealand Literature, and editor of the Journal of New Zealand Literature.