Victoria University Press, Wellington, 1990, $24.95
Barbara Anderson willingly allowed her mettle as a storyteller to be tested when she located her stories in the familiar physical environment of a Girls’ High School. This is a territory which many a writer has scoured and with which even more can claim acquaintance, making it all the harder to strike a note of refreshing difference. However, to her credit, Anderson succeeds in tapping this well-worked ground for those threads of emotion, those weights of happenings, and those unexplained reserves which make that which is same also different, and pregnant with its own mystery. Anderson manages, with admirable understatement and deftness, to uncover the exceptional in the ordinary.
Barbara Anderson’s Girls High might draw echoes of recognition from many, but perhaps also a dawning sense of having entered unexpected territory as they are led unsuspectingly into a world slightly beyond the school where the inevitably large female cast of mainly teachers recall their interwoven lives and experiences. There is Una Benchley, whose marriage to a homosexual husband was never consummated; Sooze, who is trying to reconcile herself to her husband’s job in a morgue; Carmen Doyle, who had been nearly raped; Jennie Murphy, who tries to seduce Carmen Doyle, who gets seduced by Cliff Marden; Cliff Marden, who is enchanted by the prospect of painting Sooze in the nude; Thea Sinclair, who had been deserted by an apparently doting husband; Mrs Toon, who is burdened with a brain-damaged daughter; and Miss Franklin, the First Assistant, who remembers her now dead lesbian lover, the former headmistress. The titles of all the stories, except the first which is ‘Staff Meeting’ and the last, ‘Leavers’ Play’, indicate that what we are witnessing is largely filtered through the consciousness of individual characters. For instance, one title reads ‘Miss Franklin remembers the smell of pepper’ and another ‘Mr Marden thinks about Carmen’, to name just two. This, of course, is a tactic that allows Anderson to avoid spatial and temporal confinement as the memories and thoughts of her characters often travel well out of range of Girls High. Anderson seems to be suggesting thus that the banality of the quotidian, which is often within immediate view, is a deceptive front that hides significant depths. By the end of the book we would have plumbed those depths and surprised ourselves by the sadness and pathos lurking beneath many a façade.
Anderson’s use of memory carries a very occasional Proustian touch. If for Proust’s narrator the sight of madeleines brought certain memories to the surface of consciousness, the same is achieved for Miss Franklin by the smell of pepper. But most of the time, Anderson recognizes that anything can launch one on the train of memory. For Marcia Hobbs, Cliff Marden’s hair triggers off memories of a love affair in Japan. For Jennie Murphy, who thinks about her sexuality, the indications are that it has reached the level of an obsession with her and needs no accidental provocation: ‘Jennie Murphy, who thought about her sexuality during the first Staff Meeting of the year, is still thinking about it in June….’ The next to the last story signals the impending closure of our passage through the meandering thoughts of these characters with the title: ‘Miss Stillburn stops thinking’, an event which happens as she drops off to sleep. Anderson’s delicate sense of humour is evident here.
Jennie Murphy’s seemingly perpetual concern with her sexual orientation is a representative instance of Anderson’s continual awareness of the sexual dimension of her characters. Not surprisingly, and perhaps with an eye to verisimilitude, Anderson has peopled her world largely with heterosexuals. However, the marginal presence of lesbians is redeemed by the centrality of their once or present position within the school, and by the honesty with which Anderson foregrounds the tensions between homoerotic love and society’s potential for a punitive response. Sex in Anderson’s world carries a definite post-lapsarian taint whether in its hetero- or homoerotic version. For Sooze, Bryce’s lovemaking carries the touch of death from the bodies he had handled in the morgue. For Mrs Toon’s daughter, sex seems to have brought the penalty of brain damage. For Carmen, sexual experiences entail at best the disrespect of being possessed by another, at worst the ignominy and devastation of attempted rape. The book’s climactic final story reiterates the theme that happy sex belongs to a lost Eden when one of the girls in the school suffers a miscarriage.
Anderson is an accomplished storyteller, and her forte is the understated revelation, or sometimes even the unstated one, as when Jennie Murphy in her story looks out on to the Tinakori Hills with a drink and observes its shadowed slopes. Here is reserve and mystery beyond telling. But sometimes mystery is only deferred for disclosure at a subsequent and less pertinent moment. Anderson retains the flexibility for staged disclosures by locating her stories within fixed context of a school, with the same characters recurring in different permutations. Given her assuredness with the constraints of form, Anderson’s awkwardness in manoeuvring the confrontation between Miss Tamp and Miss Franklin comes as something of a surprise. Her device of having a private conversation between Miss Tamp and Thea Sinclair inadvertently videotaped by Jennie Murphy and having that videotape fall accidentally by Miss Franklin’s car does show Anderson as a too evident deus ex machina. Quite possibly, this may indicate that Anderson’s strength lies in the short story with its economy of gesture and suggestion, rather than in the sustained narrative where at least some elementary plotting is needed. However, her sense for endings is quite flawless as she brings the entire sequence of narratives to a forceful finale with the ‘Leavers’ Play’. The choice of play, Brecht’s Mother Courage, perhaps serves as a covert retrospective comment on how her own characters are situated vis-à-vis the reader. The many angles trained on any particular character discourage identification and ensures, if not alienation, at least a dispassionate distance. Character itself in the Anderson universe is not a fixed constant, but a product of the interplay of subjectivities, which confirms the uncertainty of self and others. With sophisticated skill, Anderson has created a fictional territory that is neither gentle nor placid and where there are no assurances for all the sense of juvenile innocence the title may evoke.
Doreen D’Cruz is a lecturer in the English Department at Massey University. Her interests are in women’s writing, feminist theory and modern fiction.