Minnie Mouse plays Anna Karenina, Iain Sharp

Staying Home and Being Rotten
Shonagh Koea,
Vintage, $19.95

Unlawful Entry
Marilyn Duckworth,
Vintage, $19.95

It’s always presumptuous to thrust two authors under a single umbrella. At least in the present instance one can point, by way of excuse, to shared nationality, gender, genre, publisher, price and word-length (give or take five pages). In addition, both novels are written in the present tense with frequent flashbacks, and each is concerned with the plight of an older woman (a widow) who is struggling to regain control of her life.

Rosalind, the widow in Staying Home and Being Rotten, contradicts the title by travelling abroad after the death of her husband and falling into the clutches (or should I say trotters?) of James, a globe-trotting swine of the lowest order. Openly, indeed flamboyantly, unfaithful, James never misses a chance to inform Rosalind that she’s a poorer cook, a more slatternly skivvy and a lousier lay than the other members of his scattered harem. ‘Nuisance’ is his preferred name for her, but he occasionally rises to greater eloquence, assuring her that she’s ‘as useless as a chocolate teapot’.

Koea does not explain the source of James’s appeal. We’re left wondering why so many women should be in thrall to him. He’s not alone in maltreating Rosalind, however. She has a helpless, passive quality which attracts bullies. Most people, including Dinah, her oldest friend, address her with casual contempt.

Gradually she learns to fight back. A sometime art dealer, she begins to sell pictures again under false pretences. She also puts a price on her sexual favours (rather above the current market rate, I believe). One could say that she becomes a whore and a swindler, but that seems far too harsh a judgement on such a likeable character. Besides, the rottenness which surrounds her far exceeds her own.

There are those whose primary concern when reading anything is the shape and texture of the sentences. On a sentence-by-sentence level, Staying Home and Being Rotten is an eccentric success. Contravening many of the traditional dictates of fine writing, Koea nevertheless achieves a wonky, endearing kind of poetry. ‘Go in fear of abstractions, ‘warns Ezra Pound, but Koea rushes in where miglior fabbros fear to tread, stringing abstract nouns together in the damnedest fashion: dialogue of tawdriness, hinterland of debasement, verisimilitude of affection, and so on. She also has a peculiar way with verbs and adjectives. Consider the following: The arrival of a parcel from James might once have provoked felicity. Now the gift of James’s sudden attention brought merely the malady of silent and arcane lamentation. I’m not at all sure that provoked, malady and arcane are correctly employed here, but the editorial decision to let them be was right, for these are the words which give the passage its idiosyncratic charm.

Koea is an impressionistic writer, careless with details and prone to little slips in narrative logic. A nitpicking approach to her work seems to me as wrong-headed as the complaint that cartoon characters have only four fingers. A cartoon-like vision, dark but hilarious, informs Staying Home and Being Rotten. It’s set in a boldly conceived two-dimensional world where scoundrels thrive, murders are daily occurrences, robbery is universal and packs of wild hounds roam the graffiti-smeared streets.

Koea is at her weakest when she strives for the third dimension. As the victim of farcical disasters, Rosalind is a marvellously sympathetic cartoon character, but Koea sometimes requires us to take Rosalind’s travails seriously. Unfortunately, this is too much like watching Minnie Mouse or Olive 0il play Anna Karenina.

Marilyn Duckworth, on the other hand, has developed a quiet mastery of tone that enables her to switch from comedy to tragedy almost imperceptibly and sometimes to hold both in balance. The decision of 15-year-old Sandy, near the end of Unlawful Entry, to kidnap Pop, her ancient, moribund grandfather, and present him to Joan ‘ her elderly widowed friend, as a suitable marriage partner is both richly amusing and intensely sad, for Sandy is doing her gormless best in a terrible situation. She genuine loves Joan and Pop, but she’s not prepared to be lumbered with them in their decrepitude.

Years before the death of her husband, Joan became convinced that he had been replaced by someone vaguely similar, ‘like an actor in a soap opera’. She wasn’t unduly alarmed, for she has always led such an orderly, firmly controlled life that she can cope with few oddities, such as connubial imposters. She is magnificently calm, too, at the beginning of the novel, when she discovers Sandy burgling her house. But as she slowly succumbs to the infirmities of age, and the world around her grows increasingly unfamiliar, she begins to panic.

Duckworth’s description of this process is beautifully judged. Through other characters’ eyes, we’re made aware of Joan’s tetchiness, her unreasonable demands, the fact that she has always been something of a Tartar. Yet her decline is both moving and frightening. A similar disintegration awaits us all, if we live long enough.

Ironically, Joan gets along much better with insolent, stroppy Sandy than she ever did with her dead daughter, Hilary, who was too timid to challenge Joan’s authority openly yet stole money from her purse and sullenly hid information from her. Hilary is an even more hopeless case than Koea’s Rosalind, but her hopelessness isn’t funny; it’s heartbreaking. Cursed with an ungainly, bespectacled appearance and a diffident manner that made her a despised outcast at school, she only ever managed to secure one friend, Roey. Marooned when Roey marries and has children, Hilary chooses to walk off the edge of a viaduct (she lacks the vitality to throw herself).

The plummet is hardly Roey’s fault, but she’s haunted by it. It’s probably the reason why she’s unable to rid herself of two hopeless lodgers: alcoholic Kate and suicidal Len. Yet, against, all the odds, Roey refuses to despair. She remains not only buoyant but cheerfully promiscuous. She’s a survivor, like Sandy.

Unlawful Entry can be read as a meditation on the theme of coping. What makes one person bounce back resiliently where another crumbles? Are there limits even to a remarkably tough woman’s resilience? It’s an understated book – less immediately striking than Koea’s, perhaps – but it seems to me Duckworth’s most poignant and assured work to date.

 

Iain Sharp is an Auckland journalist.

 

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