Lives on Fire
Sceptre New Zealand, $19.95
All the Nice Girls
Victoria University Press, $24.95
It had to happen, I guess. It seems just yesterday that we were standing in bookshops, spellbound at the sight of an those gorgeous dark green Virago paperbacks featuring the work of WOMEN, many already dead, unsung heroines all, trying to get to grips with LIFE, exploring things like west Africa (Mary Kingsley), in floor-length frocks or dealing with men and corsets and servants with never a condom or a steam iron in sight.
Then there were those daring ARTICLES that said there was a war going on and men were the enemy; those printed outpourings represented material of so subversive a nature, so revolutionary an approach that they had to be read sitting down.
Thanks to all this gorgeous text we were inspired to take to the mental barricades. We changed the old idols, made a grab for a place in the sun and started wearing low heels and elastic waists. It’s been a helluva ride and some might say that for us here in New Zealand we’re cresting the wave with Suffrage Year … which will thankfully end soon.
But everything’s cyclical they say. What inspired passion and excitement then risks becoming ho-hum now. Today do we find the thrill of the forbidden idea that will cause an uproar in women’s writing? Naomi Wolf and the ferocious Dworkin don’t really do it, and when Susan Faludi suggested that nasty dress designers (gay and male) were constantly plotting to make us look like bags were we altogether surprised?
This tiresome preamble is by way of regretting that women writers now have to work harder to surprise and delight and it could be that we are starting to run out of new plots on the theme of the domestic drama, and interpersonal relationships and new tactics and strategies in the sex war. Do we need time out like that woman in the television commercial (for crackers, for god’s sake), who breaks in to prison to have some time to think? I just dunno, but this time round the talented Rosie Scott and the luminous and lovely Barbara Anderson have caused me to say: “And? And? Come on then, where’s the new stuff, s.u.r.p.r.i.s.e. me”, which I think is probably not fair. It’s just that we’ve been hit over the head by the 100%-proof stuff and don’t have much time for the subtleties of good green tea which is refreshing and good for you.
Belle, who spends a lot of her time in the Brisbane heat with her clothes off waiting for her husband to come home, is a case in point. Rosie Scott draws her well, but so used have we become to the domestic triangle and its inevitabilities that we know before Belle does that letting the beautiful nymphet called Sky into the house AT ALL, let alone sitting getting drunk with her and husband Tyler, is a recipe for disaster and there will be TEARS BEFORE DURING AND AFTER BED-TIME. And there are. Good title, Lives on Fire.
We’re not altogether gob-smacked by what happens next, Tyler it seems, being good in bed but rather two-dimensional. Where we get the surprise, and it doesn’t really work, is when Belle loads up the van with a bunch of street kids she has engineered into a sort of theatre troupe, raw and realistic, and heads off into the great emptiness of inland Queensland. The heat is good, the street kids are good but Tyler and Sky (will we ever get over the seventies?), deserve each other and that’s it really. Will there be a sequel? I hope Rosie Scott keeps writing, she’s good, but…
Barbara Anderson does a very good line in green tea with more than a hint of fermentation. Her surprise for the sated reader lies in the setting – the Devonport Naval base in 1962. Sophie has a lot more to deal with than Belle for she and the country are on the brink of the sexual revolution and the re-examination of all the old mores and disciplines, including the male hierarchies of the armed services and the place of “the little woman” in that scheme of things.
Sophie’s husband, William, correct to the point of anal retention, is away at sea and Sophie is part of a complex subculture that governs the behaviour of “wives ashore”. There are things you must do and things that are simply “not done”. Her parents, the orchardists; her brilliant but eccentric sister who has thrown over a career as a marine biologist to go beach-combing with an American she is shacked up with; the wild Arnie, her neighbour, Geordie, and union man to the last despite being so frail, are all part of the background to her life which becomes increasingly defiant of the norms because the norms are so undemanding and unappreciative of her efforts.
So, she has an affair. Well, wouldn’t you if the captain of the naval base (sleek as a hand-fed seal), asked you to make a towelling toilet seat cover and surround to please the wife of the head of a friendly Asian power. She refuses. Now that is a surprise. Why? Because when she asks the ass why his wife Celia couldn’t make the damn thing he responds: “Oh Celia couldn’t do anything like that”.
Celia has her own money by the way. Nowadays such a refusal is called “telling him where to stick it”, but those were gentler times and Sophie, finally at the end of her tether, starts an affair with the commodore. Of course William comes back from sea, Sophie tells him, all hell breaks loose but then we’d expect that.
The difference between Belle and Sophie, apart from the fact that Sophie is a much more satisfying character, is of course that if there is to be betrayal it is better to be the betrayer than the betrayed. Sophie sorts it all out. No husband, no lover in the end, given that the sod’s asked her to wait for two years so he won’t ruin his chances with head office in Wellington by taking up with another man’s wife, oh, and that Sophie, in a moment of panic had also run him over and broken both his legs. Puts a damper on passion, that.
But we care what happens to Sophie, and Barbara Anderson gives us the room to speculate a little about what will become of her. She’ll be right, I think. Belle, oh god, in the van with those kids … no not a good idea.
So what else makes All the Nice Girls a better book? Could it be it’s because there are a lot of men in it, and they have validity too? And that that is the way of the radical notion and the genuine surprise for a while?
Sharon Crosbie is general manager of Radio New Zealand, a broadcaster and one‑time English teacher.