David Ling Publishing, $19.95
Both of these books deal with distance – within relationships and across time and space – and with dislocation, of various and at times particularly Antipodean kinds. Many of the characters in both books are out of their element in some way: removed, not just from home, but from part of the source of their life and being. They are drawn by ill-defined impulses to travel vast distances, only to find themselves adrift and directionless. Their lives are shaped by events that have taken place out of reach (and therefore out of their control) in the past, or on the other side of the world, or both. This lack of control, over their own lives and impulses, and over the damage that life can do to them, is a recurring theme in both books.
Most of the stories in Elspeth Sandys’ ironically titled collection, Best Friends, take place in a more-or-less contemporary London. Many of the characters are expatriate New Zealanders, struggling to find their feet in a city that is hostile or, at best, insultingly indifferent to their aspirations.
The stories are loosely linked by the gradually unfolding, and disintegrating, relationship between Grant, described by one of the other characters as a ‘second-rate actor in a tasteless soap’ and Sue, who is so adrift in her own life that she takes refuge in making up occupations for herself – traffic warden, policewoman, psychiatrist – as a defence against the question, ‘What do you do?’ Both are from New Zealand; Sue is haunted by homesickness and by the repercussions of Grant’s affair, on a trip back to New Zealand, with another woman.
Grant and Sue’s story is interwoven with the lives of other couples in a complicated pattern of tangled and brittle relationships. Sandys convincingly captures the tensions and insecurities of these ‘friendships’, but the flat, undifferentiated tone of the narrative (despite changes of narrator) and the disconcerting sameness of many of the characters and situations (Harold and Rachel, Ben and Sandra in ‘Getting On’, for example, seem like mirror images of Chris and Delia, Grant and Sue) eventually made me lose interest in them and the traps they are caught in. The two stories that most interested me, ‘Chiaroscuro’ and ‘A Walk in the Forest’, are not set in London but in New Zealand. Read together, they stand apart from the London stories in their emotional force and directness, and in their strong sense of place.
If London is little more than a shadowy background in Sandys’ stories, in Shena MacKay’s Dunedin it springs disturbingly to life as a place of terrifyingly random violence. The novel begins and ends with a story set in Otago in the first decade of this century. Jack and Louisa MacKenzie have made the voyage from Glasgow to New Zealand so that Jack can take up the duties of a pastor and, with somewhat more enthusiasm, indulge his passion for natural sciences and his penchant for ‘dark girls with blossoms in their hair’. Between the two slices of the past, the novel moves forward in time by eighty years to contemporary London, to follow the lives of Jack and Louisa’s descendants, William and Olive MacKenzie, and of Jay Pascal, grandchild of the illicit union between Jack and Myrtille, a washerwoman of part-Maori, part-French descent.
This framing of the present by the past serves as a reminder of the impossibility, for these characters, of escaping the patterns laid down in the past. The sins of early twentieth-century Presbyterian rigidity and hypocrisy are visited on the feckless Sandy, son of Jack and Louisa, and on his children, Olive and William, who are both, in different ways, victims of injustices perpetrated before they were born. Jay – ‘the New Zealand boy’, as Olive thinks of him – is even more of a victim. He is a lost innocent, who, through no fault of his own other than an inability to focus sufficiently on survival, becomes one of the ‘scattered, disaffected army of the deranged’ that roams London’s streets, parks and subways.
Mackay’s characters, even when their lives are hopelessly out of control, are always firmly located in time and place. She is wonderfully good at evoking states of mind through the precisely observed detritus of everyday urban living. William and Olive co-exist in a seedy part of south-east London, in a scratchy, irritable, loving relationship which is wholly convincing. William’s infuriating apathy, his kindness (‘a grumpy angel…. the grey batwings of his cardigan drooping’) and his unhappiness are memorable and touching. Olive is a wonderful fictional creation – cranky, bad-tempered, selfish, obsessive – and alive.
The stories in Best Friends portray relationships that are irrevocably damaged by people’s inability to find ways to deal with the distances between them, and with their own inner sense of dislocation. Their dilemmas are clearly presented, but as fictional creations they remain wispy and indistinct. In the title story, Delia says to Sue, ‘But you’re real!’ Unfortunately, in fictional terms, this is simply not true. Sue never does become ‘real’, though she’s undoubtedly a much nicer person than Olive. Olive is not a nice person, but she is convincingly, and forgivably, human.
Mackay’s writing has immense verve and energy. Her characters’ lives may lack purpose and direction, but the novel gives them a vividly realised fictional location in which they and their dilemmas seem real enough to matter.
Patricia Glensor is a Wellington editor.