Victoria University Press, 1993, $24.95
This, Damien Wilkins’s first novel, seems a natural extension of his earlier stories and poems. It is a bildungsroman of a very modernistic sort, tightly written, concise in scope but large in reference, unfolding its layers of image and symbol over a few central events and characters much in the manner of a story or prose poem.
The present of the novel describes a return journey by the Cook Strait ferry made by the protagonist, a 30-year-old literary editor Brett Healey, to attend the funeral of his paternal grandfather who is seen by Healey to have been a significant figure in his childhood. While on the journey and at the reception which follows the funeral, Healey goes through a cathartic process of reliving certain key events in his earlier life. His alert mind is triggered by the sights of his native Wellington, relatives and fellow travellers to revisit his past in search for an escape, or at least an explanation, from the plateau which his adult life appears to have reached.
This journey provides a firm location in time and place from which an odyssey of the self is undertaken. If the limitation of the present plot of the novel tends to restrict the narrative thrust of the book, it will also help readers find their way through the shifts in time and place which largely make up the circular, to-and-fro movement of the novel.
The use of flash-back, prefiguring and retrospection is beautifully handled and the reader never feels lost even in so compactly plotted and introspective a plot. The structure of the novel, centred as it is on a series of distinct yet interwoven chapters, is exceptionally skilful. Each chapter tends to take a moment of the present situation and to work from that back into the past along lines of connection which dawn on the main character. These connections become the steps by which Healey’s self-understanding grows and make up the development of character which is the heart of the novel.
Many of the chapter titles focus on the physical locations of the story ‑ creeks, mountains, beehives, tunnels ‑ which carry a symbolic layer of meaning in terms of Healey’s psychological development. There is, for example, a persistent upwards movement in the book. From his early desire to climb on the his grandfather’s knee, Healey seems continually faced with taxing (and often fruitless) climbs: to his university tutorials, up the mountains Egmont and Edgeware, to his parents’ Kelburn home and almost, too, towards the spirit of his now dead grandfather which is several times described as ascending (rising hopefully) to a higher, clearer view.
… only.. by rising a certain distance … by reaching the sunlit, virgin citadel of the grandfather’s knee, would he be able to begin this collecting of himself … (p228)
These ascensions also lead inwards, away from the edge and towards the interior. The journey itself is a metaphor but the symbolism of the novel is perhaps only partially grasped on a first reading. The Miserables is certainly a book which will repay a second visit for the reader who feels motivated to undertake such.
The title itself intrigues. The allusion to Hugo’s Les Miserables is surely ironic in that Wilkins’ book is at the other end of the “epic” scale ‑ a watercolour against a mural. It recalls the gift to Healey by his grandfather of a copy of the Hugo novel on his eleventh birthday. It is beyond him at that age but Wilkins’ adoption of the title in its English form seems to reflect his own novel as describing Healey’s adult search for the meaning of the term, or more exactly, for a “healing” of the miserableness which threatens both himself and his brother.
Unlike its epic namesake, The Miserables is an introspective novel composed of small moments redolent with significance, reworked, gazed at again and again like precious stones held to the light and together building a mosaic of a life. This is a process familiar to anyone of adult years and indeed, one of the pleasures, gains, of advancing age ‑ the scope and enhanced perspective of that foreign country Hartley called the past. Perhaps maturity is a growing ability to make sense of one’s past and increasingly see in it the seeds and patterns which now compose the present. It is at key moments in our lives such as births, deaths, separations, journeys, that such a vision tends to focus itself, forcing us to gaze backwards and inwards at the same time.
Certainly it is this kind of experience the protagonist of the novel, Brett Healey, undergoes in The Miserables. Readers who enjoy similar self-scrutiny will find much to enjoy in Wilkins’ carefully detailed and brilliantly structured evocation of Healey’s self-discovery. That such a novel should remain almost entirely free of nostalgia or cloying sentimentality is a remarkable feat. Wilkins excels in the coolly clinical, sometimes acerbic and often wry objectivity which is the mark of his character’s detached point of view. If Healey finally finds consolation from the retrospective journey his grandfather’s death inspires, it is not because he goes looking for it but, rather, because he is able to come to terms with the disappointments, anxieties and failures of his youth seen clearly for the first time.
Neither is this journey solely a self-centred one. Wilkins succeeds, especially in the final two chapters when the cast list widens, in showing how Healey’s growth in self-understanding leads outward to a more comprehensive empathy the novel’s final word describes as “tenderness”.
Perhaps it was only by retracing all the paths he had ever taken … that Healey could begin to imagine what it was like for any other figure to move along the paths which sometimes intersected with his own.
We assemble these random movements, he said to himself, these left turns and right turns and imagine ourselves symbolic navigators, first-time explorers, everlasting pioneers and then we look at this beautiful map inside our heads and it is like no country that has ever existed, though we should not fool ourselves that we have invented any of this. If we look closely we see only the faint image of our own wishes pressed onto paper as flimsy as skin. It is the mere tattoo of our pattern mania. (pp111‑12)
This is a revealing passage not just for its hints of Healey’s growing empathy but also for the way it shows Wilkins working the novel’s resonances outwards to a wider New Zealand context. The imagery brings to mind Vincent Ward’s film Map of the Human Heart, an analogy which reflects on this novel’s lack of emotional depth and sheer story power.
The above passage also shows the complex point of view from which the novel is told. Is the phrase “he said to himself” convincing there? Surely these are the novelist’s thoughts? (But Healey is an editor).
Although the novel is told entirely in the third person, Wilkins brings the reader extremely close to Brett Healey’s inner voice ‑ so much so that at times we feel, like Healey himself, that we are “… overhearing something”. This is what is normally referred to as free indirect style, in which authorial voice and characters’ speech are fused together. All Healey’s thoughts are thus reported to us in the third person, past tense giving the illusion of intimate access to his mind yet allowing the author to maintain his ironic participation in the discourse. Unlike Woolf and Joyce, to whose line this novel belongs, The Miserables contains little dialogue and all this reported subjectivity at times seems to drown the surface of the story which is too slight to sustain its weight.
The prose style too can sometimes be taxing. Wilkins has a wonderfully individual style and its key feature is the long sentence: Often these roll harmoniously on, balanced, counterpointed, mirroring the tension in Healey’s thinking in which any firm conclusion tends to be balanced by the equally apparent possibility of its opposite. At other times their cumbersomeness makes reading difficult.
The Miserables is a fascinating mixture. There are times when it recalls parts of early Gee or even Marshall in its reflective introspection presented in a curiously restrained way. If, as is sometimes said, the novel genre is supreme among forms of narrative literature in rendering subjectivity then The Miserables is a novel par excellence.
Rod McGregor teaches English and children’s literature at Wellington College of Education.