Ron Bacon and Kelvin Hawley,
Hodder & Stoughton, Auckland, 1991, $10.95
Out Walked Mel
John McIndoe, Dunedin, 1991, $16.95
A picture-book format, and a story that doesn’t quite match: which could be a short-story for slightly older readers in an Oscar Wilde kind of fantasy, turning corners in ways that should be delightful, but here are merely unproductively perplexing. A grandfather makes a kite for Peter. They live on the edge of a generalised summer field, and they talk about how the cranes will come again next year. Perhaps because this is a New Zealand collaboration, the advent of cranes is surprising! Be that as it may, the reader is led to expect a story about mortality and change, perhaps about a grandfather’s imminent death. No such thing ensues. ‘The year moved on and autumn came’. Yes. We expect this. The cranes are leaving for the winter. Yes, we expect this too. The kite is lost and blows away with them. Yes, a foretaste of greater loss, perhaps. Two thirds of the way through the book we leave grandfather and boy and meet ‘a man in a cornfield’. Where? Who? He uses the torn kite to make a scarecrow. Recycling! Yes, life goes on, in other ways, elsewhere. All right. Then, when the man puts the scarecrow on his bonfire, some smoke takes the shape of a crane. Nice imagery: but a tonal change that has not been prepared for in this realistic story. Then, suddenly, we meet the boy and grandfather again, still as alive as ever, and the boy sees a crane flying that is the same colour as the kite he lost, and asks his grandfather if they can make another one.
There is something unsatisfactory about this sequence, both in the structure and relative weight of parts of the story, and with the ‘magic’ and the ‘message’. The narrative voice is not strong enough to carry the idea. I am the wrong reader for it. The suggested readership is seven to eleven; most of them will have advanced beyond this layout. Kelvin Hawley’s pictures are realistic and attractive.
Out Walked Mel a short first novel about a 17-year-old girl is racy, professional and very readable. Here is a new voice in New Zealand fiction: a young voice, in touch with a culture which is unmistakably contemporary. Welcome, Paula Boock!
Out Walked Mel is very nearly not ‘junior fiction’ at all: Its packaging makes it such. It could meet a readership as a novella, dealing as it does with the emotional stresses of young adulthood. The lively intelligent narrator-heroine, Mel, seeks love and acceptance from her schoolfriend Wai, her father, boy-friend (Wai’s brother) and an elderly woman stranger-on-a-bus, only to face a further trauma of her friend’s death. Because the first-person narration, convincingly sustained, only allows us the perspective of Mel herself, we come to understand how much she misses the mother she lost in childhood and what this has meant to her relationships since, by interpreting Mel’s actions and reactions, rather than by being told.
Mel is the sort of sixth-form pupil many schoolteachers rather admire, while flinging hands up in horror in classroom or staffroom about ‘bolshiness’, ‘unpredictability’, or ‘waste of ability’. It’s school she walks out from, after a spirited confrontation with the visiting Minister of Education in front of the television cameras: ‘Why don’t you piss off’. Thereafter she is on the road, hitchhiking and experiencing moments of hair-raising danger. Her episodic journey, which takes her geographically from Dunedin to her handsome hopeless father in Christchurch, whose girlfriend is scarcely older than herself, to her boyfriend and potential lover in Auckland, to the far North, place of spirits for her friend, is one which has counterparts in previous New Zealand fiction, from Man Alone onwards. Mel’s story is as entertaining as Goodbye Pork Pie and as serious as Dick Seddon’s Great Dive. Is there something about New Zealand that makes a geographical journey of discovery an integral part of a first novel by a promising writer? In escaping trauma Mel finds more, and in doing so discovers she can take responsibility for herself.
The book’s format, a wide, thin paperback with an attractive bright cover, suggests a pre-teenage readership. Many such will enjoy it, but it would be a pity if Paula Boock’s merits were not also noticed by Mel’s closer contemporaries, and, without any sense of slumming, by adults. Paula Boock looks set to make a substantial contribution to New Zealand culture.
Kirsty Cochrane, Senior Lecturer in English, University of Waikato, recently initiated BA and Honours courses in Children’s Literature as a genre at this University. She also works in renaissance and 20th century literature.