Charting life and death, Rebecca Simpson

Daisy and Lily
Renée,
Penguin, $24.95

The blurb on the back of Renée’s new novel, Daisy and Lily, announces that ‘Renée has created a world which is part biography, part elegy, part robust stand-up comedy, all leavened with lively good sense.’ The biography referred to is that being written by the novel’s heroine, Daisy, about her own life. She chooses to call it biography because the dictionary defines it as a life course, and she wishes to chart her life’s course. There are similarities with the novelist’s life – the heroine is about the same age as Renée and has had some of her life experiences – but as all novels are to some extent autobiographical, it would be fruitless to explore these similarities too assiduously.

Daisy and Lily does, however, feature some of Renée’s life-long preoccupations: poverty, working-class heroines butting up against the middle classes, theatre, poor relationships with mothers, the politics of feminism and lesbianism. Daisy’s chatty narrative style allows these preoccupations to be assimilated into the texture of the novel much more successfully than they were in Renée’s first novel, Willy Nilly, where the feminist/ lesbian politics and life details especially are almost self-consciously paraded.

Renée does not entirely escape a preaching tone such as when Daisy explains her former desire to marry into respectability: ‘The ones who despise snobs and social climbers are those who’ve always had social and family advantages and have the privilege of enjoying them or the luxury of walking away.’ However, this tone is rare, and the chronicling of events like the 1981 Springbok tour and activities like helping victims of abuse at a women’s refuge occur naturally in Daisy’s life course.

Daisy and Lily are childhood and teenage best friends, and once-only lovers – fear of this isolated incident drives them both into unfortunate marriages and forty years of separation. The novel chronicles, among other things, their reunion and the development of their difficult relationship to a very touching dénouement.

More than anything else, though, Daisy and Lily deals with death. It begins with the death, by bashing, of Daisy’s transsexual ‘Uncle Auntie’ Magda, and ends with Daisy finally deciding to take her body home to her Maori family, whom she has always feared and ignored.

Magda’s death is not the only one in the novel; Daisy’s past is littered with corpses – her son’s, her mother’s and her ex-husband’s among others. Apart from Daisy’s rather irritating obsession about deaths occurring in threes, this seam of death in the novel is never depressing. Renée’s touch is very light, and some of the best writing comes in the description of Daisy’s ex-husband’s funeral: ‘The pallbearers marched in. They’d bought their faces from the same shop as the usher.’

None of Renée’s writing falls into the predictable feminist trap of presenting all men as one-dimensional bastards – Spencer, Daisy’s ex-husband, is a philanderer who is totally obsessed with the theatre, but he is likeable, and his heart is in the right place. Similarly, not all the female characters are either likeable or good. Daisy herself carries her resentment of her mother to well beyond Charlotte’s death, and only lets go of it when she contemplates taking Magda’s body home.

Absorbing and moving, Daisy and Lily for me represents Renée’s coming of age as a novelist – most appropriate in this year of celebrating New Zealand women and their achievements.

 

Rebecca Simpson is a writer who works for Learning Media.

 

 

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Posted in Fiction, Literature and Review
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