Janet Wilson: Distinctive depictions of childhood

Pomare
Elizabeth Knox
Victoria University Press, 1994, $19.95

What is it about Elizabeth Knox’s writing that divides readers into devotees or detractors, into those who do and those who don’t enjoy her work? Her first novel, After ZHour (1987), which might be described as a post-modern ghost story, is written with such panache that more established writers should be envious. Following the international success of the bone people, After ZHour made all the more impact because Knox’s mastery of complex fictional techniques suggested that here was a novelist who might match Hulme.

This astonishing debut was matched in 1989 with Paremata, a novella about childhood, which writers of no less stature than Margaret Mahy, Fleur Adcock and Anne French acclaimed for its precise and sensuous images. And although her third novel, Treasure (1992), received mixed reviews, admirers such as Elizabeth Smither praised it as “a rich metaphysical landscape”. But Knox’s work is apparently not always so enthusiastically received; for example, she rates not a mention in the Oxford History of New Zealand Literature even though as Brian Boyd, who noted this omission, rightfully points out, she deserves to be known as one of New Zealand’s finest writers for her command of “word, image and sensation”.

It would be too simple to say that the issue is one of gender preference and that the women’s voices in Treasure and After ZHour, and Knox’s novella on a New Zealand girlhood, Paremata, and recently its sequel, Pomare, attract mainly women readers and critics. Yet the claim could be made that she has captured a niche market with her semi-autobiographical fictions of childhood.

The novella or long short story which celebrates this theme has a venerable history among New Zealand writers as diverse as Katherine Mansfield, Janet Frame, Jean Watson, Dan Davin and Maurice Shadbolt whose Figures in Light is one of his finest works. Enthusiasts for such writing, for whom writing about childhood is also a way of writing for children, would make a captive readership even without Knox’s undeniable literary strengths.

In a wider and more important sense, though, Knox might be described as coterie writer, who has been best appreciated by devotees of literary excellence who can revel in the brilliance of her images, who respect the artistic judgements that inform her writing and who would endorse her post‑modern denial of sentimentality and nostalgia. For such readers her strengths perhaps outweigh her weaknesses which to my mind, in Treasure and Pomare, at least, are over‑inclusive detail and limited characterisation. For other readers less attuned to Knox’s contemporary aesthetic, however, who perhaps expect the ingredients of the realist novel, a good story and narrative progression, her writing seemingly doesn’t always hit the right spot.

Puzzlement over these conundrums finally persuaded me to undertake what might seem the unethical task of reviewing the same book twice. Given that following After ZHour Knox eschewed post-modern narrative techniques in favour of fictionalised autobiography (although she interestingly combines both in Treasure), and given that realism and the metaphysical blend with varying degrees of success in her work, some appraisal of all her writing to date, which also considers the directions in which she has developed, seems appropriate. One question that the mixed reception of her work raises, is whether the innovative aspects of her writing actually outstrip the capacities of some of her readers, or whether her preoccupation with realism, evident in her penchant for detail and the unerring exactness of her imagery – precisely those qualities for which she has been most praised ‑ has inhibited her from developing control over form.

Like Paremata, Pomare is set in the outer suburb of Wellington where Knox grew up and like Paremata it focuses on the activities of Lex Keene (or “Less” as she first called herself lispingly) and her family. Unusually Pomare reverses the chronology which the order of publication would suggest, to reach back to before the time of Paremata (set in 1969 when Lex is nine) to 1966 when Lex is seven. Both novellas deal vividly with specific times in her life and with varying degrees of success interleave her point of view with those of family and friends. Pomare links these diverse perceptions by setting the action within the month of November when the election is about to occur. Paremata traces the Keenes’ life during the summer of 1966. In Pomare Knox creates further unity through introducing the theme of death as the children gradually become aware that their childhood friend and neighbour, Thomas Sand, is dying of cancer.

In both fictions Lex’s world is all‑powerful, but the energy of Pomare flattens when attention shifts to the adult characters. Her mother, Hester Keene, is never more than one‑dimensional; Frank, her father, sketched affectionately with unfulfilled literary ambitions, amusingly imagined in the Listener office with some off‑the‑cuff wisecracks about poetry as he and the other subeditors try to pick future Nobel Prize winners, is nevertheless best realised in moments of interaction with his daughter. Despite these somewhat deadpan depictions, the novel succeeds because of the scenes concerning the Keene children and their friends.

Here is Knox at her best. Incisive dialogue conveys the turbulent emotions which underpin children’s inter‑relational dynamics; the narrative becomes so pungent and juxtaposes perceptions so skilfully, that the reader is startled and touched simultaneously. Knox’s capacity to make us experience the world as if for the first time is no less compelling in Pomare than in her earlier fictions. Take the moment when Thomas Sands, paralysed by the sight of the cripple, David Hough, helpless on the railway tracks before an oncoming train, sees his sister who had been sunbathing naked on the other side of the track, suddenly spring into view:

Thomas saw Glenda and her boyfriend stand up among the boulders. The boyfriend put his hands to his head and pressed his skull; his eyes seemed to move further apart, as if he was searching for an aperture through which an idea might make its way. Glenda had forgotten to hold herself together and Thomas stared at his sister’s breasts. His eyes in expectations of blood and violence, had never seen anything so tender and lovely. Glenda waved her arms and shrieked, “Hang over the side!”

 

In Pomare where the initial offering of “death as a delicacy” sets the mood for Knox’s metaphysics, fate surrounds the children’s activities. Paremata, by contrast, precisely because the Keene children and their neighbours, the Brents, are older and occupy the foreground unchallenged, is richly textured and more exuberant in mood. The activities of the adults are regaled through a childish, magpie‑like curiosity about their goings on: the neighbouring poet Sam to whom Cathy Brent and Joanne Keene take soup, the divorced Joy Brent who is rumoured to have lovers and Joy’s visitors, especially the mysterious stranger Count Pavlov with whom 12‑year‑old Jo falls in love. Brimming with incipient sexuality, the novella explores this dimension further through Lex’s discovery in a game with her sister of the excitement of orgasm, the moment when they become “frantic”. It also gathers pace through a mock‑religious game over territory, between the girls (who, complete with a Shaman, worship at their shrine) and the tribe of boys (the “savages” and “infidels”), the hostilities culminating in a pitched battle.

Paremata‘s energy, like Pomare‘s emotional restraint, reflects these phases of Lex’s life as well as evoking the political, social temper of the late sixties. Knox responds well to the miniaturist aesthetic of the novella form. She spins off disparate views from the controlling presence of her heroine, and through Lex’s experiences pinpoints the exact sensation, creating the precise impression in language. In her third novel Treasure, however, which comes chronologically between Paremata and Pomare, her problems in integrating different themes and developing structure are more transparent.

Most daring in scope, Treasure is also the most deliberately dislocated of her novels. Like After ZHour it blends realism with a futuristic, supernatural aspect (the unearthly powers of the charismatic Christian, Mayhew, and the ghostly, magical black disc which appears to the museum curator, Frances Kirby) and contrasts the multitudinous fragmentary present with the seemingly singular past. Knox juxtaposes characters, themes and settings through interrelated scenarios, shifting dramatically from the contemporary Wellington setting of the first two sections to a period 22 years earlier in the third.

This story set in South Dakota, and tracing the fortunes of the charismatic families, the Omos and the Quitmans, the “hot gospel high holy rollers”, could almost come from another novel. By contrast, the romance between Kath and Martin, the story of section one, reads with more immediacy, for Kath’s observations which chart the ups and downs of the relationship create a unity of “affect”. In fact this might almost be another “slice of life” (an older Lex launched into carnal knowledge) and a further sequel to Paremata. Although the semi‑autobiographical story overlaps with other threads of the plot, the jumps in time and place make Treasure read like several disparate short stories, which are hardly drawn together thematically by the orchestrated grand finale, the Miracle Healing Rally at the Wellington Town Hall. Neither do the novel’s supernatural elements, the mysterious black disc, the magical healing powers of Mayhew, contribute to any grander, more controlling statement. This deliberate disjunctiveness has the effect of making the novel convey less than its ambitious structure would suggest.

The strengths and weaknesses of Knox’s achievements in autobiographical fiction and in Treasure can perhaps be best explained by looking last but not least at the achievement of After ZHour, a veritable conjuring trick of a novel, in which melodrama, fantasy and realism combine without any loss of narrative pace. By making three of her youthful characters narrate different versions of the same story, dwelling on their past traumas and attitudes towards their present dilemma, and by strategically switching from one micro‑story to another, Knox unfolds a ghost story whose whole is larger than any of its parts.

This balancing act works brilliantly to evoke the atmosphere of doom, dread, and suspicion between the six strangers who collide in the haunted house. It is apotheosised in the novel’s tour de force: the story of the house’s ghost, Mark Thornton, the World War I soldier, which emerges eerily from the past, gradually engulfing the present‑day drama as it develops. By means of her parallel yet overlapping narratives, Knox establishes an implicit dialogue between her two sets of characters which crosses the boundaries of time and death. The mystery of the haunted house magnifies the situation of the contemporary figures, complicating already existing psychological tensions; Mark’s story adds tragic depth; and the reader’s wits are constantly challenged as the two plots gradually converge towards a single vanishing point in which temporal and spatial verities are overturned.

Writing a first novel as good as this must inevitably pose the question, “where to from here?” Knox’s subsequent fictions concentrate mainly on the realist and metaphysical strands that come together so triumphantly in After ZHour. The mixed reception of her work (has she been over‑rated or under‑rated?), suggests that her first novel, perhaps slightly ahead of its time in 1987, set up expectations which could not realistically be met. Instead, turning to more traditional narrative forms, Knox has developed her reputation for realism and for imaginative yet concise imagery, although she has only rarely matched the sustained raw power and technical brilliance of After ZHour. On the other hand, while she deserves unstinting praise for her first novel, we cannot now ignore the range of her achievement which extends to her distinctive depictions of a New Zealand childhood in the sixties. It might equally be said that the mixed dynamics of her writing since 1987, especially in Treasure, disguises a search for a more challenging aesthetic structure than the novella, in which she might once more surprise us by exploiting the potential of the novel form.

Janet Wilson is a senior lecturer in English at the University of Otago.

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