Diverse enjoyable strands, Heather Roberts

A Population of One
Alice Glenday,
Vintage, Auckland, 1991, $19.95

The Peace Monster
John Smythe,
Vintage, Auckland, 1991, $24.95

The Widowhood of Jacki Bates
Frances Cherry,
New Women’s Press, Auckland 1991, $19.95

Strained Relations
Gaelyn Gordon,
Vintage, Auckland, 1991, $24.95

Each of these novelists has a contribution to make to the literature, and little links them apart from the location of their fiction and time of publication. All are established writers in genres other than the novel.

Alice Glenday’s second novel A Population of One, after a silence of nearly twenty years is the nearest book I have to a 1990s version of Man Alone. A female protagonist caught inside a loving family, grows up in the suburbs feeling terribly alone. While I enjoyed this account of a young woman moving into adulthood and unplanned parenthood, I was never convinced about the reasons for Emma’s isolation.

The people of John Smythe’s The Peace Monsterwould have little chance of experiencing the kind of disconnectedness that Emma knows. The small community of Opononi in the Hokianga is drawn together by a dolphin which spends a summer there, boosting the town’s coffers and imposing stresses and problems they have never experienced. The story of Opo is well-known and has been fictionalised and dramatised before. Smythe has the added burden then of proving that he has something new to say. The idea of assembling a large cast of characters who happened to be in Opononi that summer has merit. Such a technique has to be carefully handled if individuals are not to be simply stereotyped. Some characters rise above that, but most are not fully enough developed. Opo had a somewhat mysterious hold on those who ‘met’ her, and those who watched from afar. Smythe attempts to deal with it by seeing events from the dolphin’s point of view as well as that of the humans involved. It’s a tricky area, and I am not sure that it comes off completely.

Frances Cherry’s writing is always a good read. In The Widowhood of Jacki Bates the heroine is an unlikely Cherry character, being the recent widow of Donald, a rich lawyer, who has treated her badly. She has to come to terms with what her marriage meant, why her husband behaved the way he did, and what future she has without him. There are a few Cherry clichés in here: the older Lesbian couple living next door who are the only happy people in the book, the daughter who discovers her vocation by literally going back to the soil, the young couple who make no demands on each other, yet offer unending support to all around them. But Cherry’s sympathy for Jacki in particular and for the dead Donald, outweigh her occasional hectoring about other issues.

And if all this is too serious, turn to Gaelyn Gordon who in her second adult novel Strained Relations combines murder with outrageous humour. The delectable detective Senior Sergeant Rangi Roberts unravels the mystery to which the reader already knows the answer, conquering a few female witnesses on the way to the perfectly solved crime. The villains are an unlikely trio, and the reader may sometimes wonder why, given the detecting skills which Rangi is supposed to have, it takes him as long as it does to find the murderers. A few readers may also have some scruples about making a comedy out of murder, but as the murdered woman is presented as unlikeable, it does seem quite a logical conclusion to a life of greed.


Heather Roberts is the author of Where did she come from? and co-editor. of A Woman’s Life. She works as a public servant in Wellington.



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