Fifteen Rubies by Candlelight
Reading Shonagh Koea’s stories in Fifteen Rubies by Candlelight is like sampling a box of good, rich chocolates. Read (or eat) too many at once and there’s a risk of sensual overload; restrict yourself to one or two, and you miss the pleasure of indulgence, and the subtle distinction of each offering. A long walk afterwards might be a good idea – the prevailing atmosphere of cloying, occasionally savage, gentility is uncomfortable – but the flavour, and mood, of the stories will linger satisfyingly.
The analogy with food is appropriate for these stories. Koea’s descriptions of food (‘poultry … with a dark and gamey flesh like the dismembered heart of a swan’) – like her descriptions of flowers and gardens, of china and antiques, of the lesser clutter of everyday life (’empty preserving jars…. a filling hose for the washing machine’) – are more than just backdrops for larger action. The confines of hotel or restaurant dining-rooms, at-home dinners and afternoon teas, a companionable breakfast and a naval ball supper-room are both settings and metaphors for the stories of love and loneliness and disappointment that make up the collection. In ‘The Magic Way’, one of the strongest stories, a lover’s grief and loss are literally subsumed by his detailed compilation of menus, shopping lists and plans for an oak allée.
Indeed, when the outer world does intrude in these stories, the contrast is frequently shocking. In ‘The Tea Party’, for example, a TAB and Lotto shop are like comforting reminders of honest, everyday greed when set against the gluttony and meanness of the terrible Manfred (“No use buying clothes” – he shrugged – for person dying”‘); or a glimpse of Robben island, to most of us a symbol of the obscenity of apartheid, a ‘small view of ordinariness’ in the grotesque world of ‘Naughty Maureen’. In the bleak ‘Death and Transfiguration’, the intrusion is a yearly telephone call with the power to freeze its recipient ‘from a line of ice inside my backbone … to solid lungs of glacial tears and a heart blanched white with treason not my own’. The language and emotion are overblown ‑ and in some stories like ‘The Widow’ stray close to burlesque – but here the sense of pent-up rage and impotence is all the more powerful for its emergence from Koea’s confined fictional world.
This limited focus largely excludes the need for bigger questions about how and why people act as they do – the men almost uniformly despicably, the women tentatively or triumphantly in the face of arrogance and deceit. Yet what the outward formality and orderliness of these lives suggests is precisely the chaos that they strife to repress by conformity to or withdrawal from the world. It’s a subversive mix, which saves the collection from feyness and sentimentality and gives each story a unique sensibility.
Nothing could be further from the cloistered world of Fifteen Rubies by Candlelight than the messy, recognisably ‘nineties’ concerns of Marilyn Duckworth’s novel, Seeing Red. The novel is set in a very familiar Wellington, where the smell of the Wakefield market and after-party ashtrays and beer cans tells us as much about the characters’ milieu as the darkened rooms of Koea’s stories. As ever, Duckworth’s dialogue is sharp and full of pace, and gives the novel an edgy, nervous quality that is just right for a tale in which much is left to supposition and imagination. Half-finished conversations and questions abound.
The novel is partly a mystery which focuses on the relationship between two sisters, Vivienne and Isla, and their enigmatic housemates, Jake and Jennet, whose closeness, despite outward appearances (matching Burberry raincoats, shared mannerisms, ‘even the way they walk, one shoulder forward’), is not all it seems. Who are these people who come into Vivienne and Isla’s life as if by stealth? What is their secret? The novel is also partly an exploration of the way in which our perceptions and expectations of others are affected by what we know or believe of ourselves. Crucially, though, Seeing Red is about violence – and in this is rather less convincing. Interestingly, it turns the tables on our normal assumptions about the perpetrators of physical violence (and those who collude with it), but the possibilities of this twist are only sketchily played out. The problem, perhaps, is one of tentativeness – the questions are raised, but resolutions avoided. Jake and Jennet, whose presence unsettles and eventually destroys the sisters’ understanding of themselves, have an almost ethereal quality which robs them of much of their power. They’re slippery and duplicitous, and their background is kept deliberately vague, but their shadowiness precludes any proper understanding of the way their relationship both sustains and destroys them – and draws others into its orbit. The references in the novel to the Hansel and Gretel story hint at childhood abuse and deceptions which inform the adult relationship, but such a device also distances Jake and Jennet from us, and deprives them of real sympathy. Liking the characters is not an imperative, of course, but we do need to know or understand the allure of the Burberries for the story to work. Instead, trapped behind closed doors, or in the world of fairytale, their story remains distanced and unknowable. Even in the climactic final scene (This is ordinary life violence. This is real’) there’s a caution – ‘we don’t need to spell the whole thing out’. Perhaps we do if we’re to understand ‘or life violence’ better.
Jane Parkin is a freelance editor.