Speaking to Miranda
Hodder & Stoughton, Auckland, 1990, $19.95
Even in the present increasingly sophisticated field of writing for young adults, Caroline Macdonald is something of a phenomenon. Her first book won the prestigious Esther Glen Medal, and her most recent, The Lake at the End of the World, a whole string of prizes or short listings in Australia, New Zealand and Britain. Her fan mail, I understand, is prodigious. Speaking to Miranda I found full of moments of recognition. I could hear, in the voice of the main character, that other voice in the head which as we all know exists to query, contradict, debunk; to act as a true/ false rating scale, silently applied to everything said by other people (and even at times by oneself).
For Ruby, it’s a matter of listening to the lies behind the pleasantries; she knows for instance – but doesn’t say – that enthusiastic chatter about her father’s remarriage, assuming her agreement, makes her feel sick. She momentarily wants to die. At times she thinks everyone round her is mad and she’s alone in a ‘circle of sanity’. She tells her own story, so you can weigh up the inner voices and the out-there people and test them for their value, just as if you’re there too. Moreover the time is now, the place here – first person, present tense – and this too contributes to the extraordinarily vivid sense of reality that pervades the novel: ‘I’m shivering. Out of my bag from Darwin I unfold Emma’s cloak, wrap it around me. I start to wonder if the way it swings is caused by something weightier at the hem than folded fabric. Perhaps I’m thinking of stories of spies and smugglers who conceal their secret documents in the lining of their jackets. With my nail scissors I hack at the stitches holding the lining to the woollen fabric. Cutting and tearing, finally I separate the one from the other, feeling the hems of each carefully then faster and faster in desperation because it’s obvious there’s nothing hidden in the cloak. Not even a scrap of paper. I finger the lint along the fold inside the woollen hem, and look at the ruins of the beautiful cloak on the bedroom floor. What had I expected to find? A name, address and telephone number? Emma’s Medicare card?’ Ruby is searching for Emma her mother – not literally, since she died when Ruby was two years old – but in ways that are almost more fundamental in that they raise questions (and provide some answers) about the girl’s own identity, her view of herself and the life around her. Nothing is easy. Her adoptive father, the ever-loving and somewhat possessive Rob, can never be asked questions because it’s too painful, and nobody else seems to know who Emma was or where she came from.
Ruby-baby (as her father irritatingly calls her) embarks on a journey that takes her through chance discoveries, surprising connections, baffling disappointments and across the Tasman (from Melbourne) to a small New Zealand coastal town, Waihi. The process brings changes in her ideas and aspirations, even in her name, the mother’s experience intricately and sometimes queerly reflected in the daughter’s. On one level it’s a compelling mystery tale, on another a map of growth and self-realisation in a young girl reaching towards independence.
Yet it’s almost a disservice to this splendid novel to anatomise it like this, so subtly and with such delicate control are the moods, events and reflections interwoven; the created reality is dense and shimmering with vitality. To describe it using words like texture, theme, form and content seems insulting. With such habits of adult reviewers in mind, I asked for the collaboration of two 13-year-old readers, Ruth and Jamil, a girl and a boy from the young adult fiction audience. The conversation was instructive, I might even say salutary – not that we disagreed; on the contrary. They had enormously enjoyed Speaking to Miranda, and their reasons were much the same as mine; but they talked of it without, some would say, the bullshit, the typical reviewer’s theorising.
They thought the story real, recognisable, it fitted their own ideas of how people do behave in certain situations; but it was also full of surprises, so they were keen to turn every page, couldn’t put it down. At the end they were left still pondering what might happen, since not all the mysteries were solved. They entirely understood Ruby’s jealousy of her father’s girlfriend, and indeed almost laughed when I asked ‘did you disapprove of her?’, so completely did they accept this natural ill feeling. In that case, and in many others, they recognised themselves, their friends, other people they knew. They didn’t raise the question of whether girls and boys might respond differently, any more than any of us asked about the difference between their age and mine – some decades. We were all talking about how human beings behave. But did they find it provocative? Yes; it made them ask questions they hadn’t asked before. I didn’t ask if they observed (as I had) that the tone of the writing is intelligently adult, with no hint of talking down (I think I suspected that to ask such a question was itself talking down).
Then I asked ‘Do you think it’s partly about possessiveness, about learning to love people without wanting to hold on to them too tightly?’ They looked at me sceptically. ‘No’ they said. ‘Why not?’ Now their gaze was quite pitying. ‘Well it’s about Ruby and Miranda and what she has to do to find out …’ ‘But isn’t she learning things all the way?’ ‘Yes of course, but it’s about her, not everybody else.’ There was an interesting connection in that, I thought, between the habits of mind of these young people and Caroline Macdonald’s technique. With the precision of any good writer she never explains what the reader knows – or can find out – by attending to the story. Part of the pleasure of Speaking to Miranda for my collaborators (and me) was that it asked alertness of mind, a knowledge of the world, and a willingness to imagine what we didn’t know and this brings me to Ruth and Jamil’s wonderful final remark. ‘It’s got magic in it, but it’s real as well.’ Magic and real together: what more can any novelist hope for?
Lauris Edmond is a Wellington poet and novelist at present working on the third volume of her autobiography.