Modern Helen of Troy disappoints, Stephanie Edmond

The Iron Mouth
Beryl Fletcher,
Daphne Brasell Associates Press, $32.95
The Iron Mouth, Beryl Fletcher’s second story in a trilogy of feminist novels, is written on two levels. On one level, it is a simple novel about a crowd of New Zealanders sharing a big house in Auckland. It’s about their lives, loves, the things that happen to and between them. There’s Khryse, the only child of rich parents. She owns the house and is struggling to write a film script, a modern interpretation of the story of Helen of Troy. Khryse has complicated relationships with her parents and is coming to terms with lesbianism. There’s beautiful Elena, who has escaped with her child, Hermione, from a brutal husband. She has a lover, Axel. Also living in the house are Finn, Brissie and Audrey, who have lovers of various shapes, ages and types. Completing this most symmetrical of plots are Audrey’s mother, Khryse’s uncle and Axel’s twin.

On the other level, the novel is the modern parallel of Helen of Troy that Khryse is struggling to write. Elena, Hermione and Axel represent Helen, Hermione and Paris, and the facts of Elena’s situation echo the Greek legend. While Khryse strives to portray the futility and waste of war, and outrage at Helen’s life as a possession of men, the women in the novel gradually shake off their various chains in the way modern women can and Helen couldn’t.

While one might admire Fletcher’s idea, I found that it doesn’t quite work. Surely a good novel must first of all engage the reader if it is to get its message across. I found the book pleasant to read, but the characters seemed like flat sketches of people I might know and enjoy talking to. They never came to life sufficiently enough to engage my emotions, Elena especially. For a long time, I thought that she would turn out to be a fraud, something entirely different from what she appeared to be, I was that unconvinced by her character. Was I supposed to feel this?

The flatness of the characters is due partly to the direct narrative style of the book. Almost everything that happens, is thought, said or felt, is told to us, leaving very little for us to interpret. Ironically, Khryse articulates this criticism of mine while working on her script: ‘I think we need to be careful here. We must let the audience do the work, we must not yield to the temptation of telling them what to think.’ Fletcher’s purpose does not unfold to us through the characters, plot or dialogue, but through Khryse’s agonising to her diary or her friend (we are never sure which). Paradoxically, while the message of the ‘second’ level of the book is being spelt out in Khryse’s words rather than allowed to unfold to us, the events of the ‘first’ level are sometimes held back in an amateurish use of suspense. For example, the people and events of chapter 1 do not re-appear until chapter 7, and so seem to bear no connection to each other. Not being told things you want or need to know can be a useful appetiser, or it can be annoying.

On the positive side, I did enjoy the familiarity of the people, places and conversation, for they reflect a stratum of New Zealand city life that I know and enjoy, and it was fun to read about it. Take, for example: ‘She goes down to the kitchen to see if anyone is cooking tea tonight. She is relieved to find Finn and Brissie preparing a meal of pasta and salad. A bottle of white wine is already open on the table. Finn grabs an extra plate and glass. Audrey compliments him on his wonderful garlic sauce. She enjoys the food and the wine and the comforting and unthreatening presence of her two flatmates.’ But I was left with a sense of disappointment. The author seems to have attempted something far more complex than she had the skills to achieve. Ideas are thrown up, too many of them. Incompletely formed, examined or illustrated, they contribute to the book’s jumbled, murky, unclear purpose.

Was the lack of emotion and purpose that I felt as I read the book designed by the author to illustrate how much we, of the television generation, are immune to the awful things that daily happen around us? When Khryse articulates the very criticisms I have of the novel, am I to see the author as writing with tongue in cheek or am I to take her seriously’? The numerous coincidences, the circling around and interconnecting of the characters’ lives, stretch credulity. As Khryse says, ‘Nobody would believe this if I wrote it into a script. The modern distaste for coincidence.’

What is Fletcher saying here?

 

Stephanie Edmond is a journalist.

 

 

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Posted in Fiction, Literature and Review
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