Varying power and art, Kim Worthington

Between Friends
Linda Burgess
University of Otago Press, $24.95

Cowrie
Cathie Dunsford
Tandem Press, $19.95

In Translation
Annamarie Jagose
Victoria University Press $24.95

Sing to Me, Dreamer
Shonagh Koea
Random House, $24.95

Having recently returned to New Zealand after several years in England, reviewing four new novels by New Zealand women gave me a taste, not so easily attained elsewhere, of the widely divergent books being written by the new generation. Three are first novels of varying success; the odd woman out is Shonagh Koea ‑Sing to Me, Dreamer is her third novel.

Linda Burgess’s Between Friends begins inauspiciously. The rather heavy‑handed free indirect speech of the first chapter, written from the perspective of teenage is  awkward and uncertain. Read generously, perhaps “s clumsiness is intentional. The second chapter, comprising a series of diary extracts from the young Sally’s journal, doesn’t do much better ‑ a female New Zealand version of Adrian Mole, without the wit of the original. Perhaps the minutiae of teenage angst are inherently clichéd? As the book progresses the blatant artifice of young Sally’s gauche naiveté cedes to a more gentle self‑conscious irony. There is plenty of scope for recognition by readers who have followed similar paths to adult initiation and beyond ‑ if nothing else, this book unashamedly sentimentalises a generation of postwar baby‑boomers and the unremarkable lives of white middle‑class New Zealanders.

Portrayed in tandem with the failed marriage and divorce of Sally is the successful marriage of Sally’s best friend, Tessa, and her husband, Daniel. The achievement of Between Friends lies in Burgess’s fine representation of the increasingly complex bonds that develop among these three in a friendship that spans 20 years and of (almost) unrequited longing as Sally and Daniel slowly recognise the sexual element in the love they share. Here, perhaps, is another cliché, that of love forbidden by duty and friendship blighted by betrayal. But the novel ends with the triumph of ironic recognition as Sally and Daniel acknowledge “the cliché, the tragic truism” of their lives and their love and succumb to desire. Although the novel concludes with a snapshot of Sally and Daniel in post‑coital bliss, it wisely stops short of belabouring the consequences of this act, a subtlety that is absent in the earlier parts of the book.

Subtlety is not a strength in Cathie Dunsford’s latest literary offering and first novel, Cowrie. Cowrie is the granddaughter of a native Hawai’ian and the adopted daughter of a New Zealand Maori; as such she straddles two Polynesian cultures. Adoption has left Cowrie without a sense of cultural belonging, in New Zealand “she was neither Maori or pakeha ‑ an alien”. Piecing together the few clues left to her in a box by her grandfather, she makes contact with her extended blood relatives in Punalu’u, Hawai’i, and ravels to meet them. Cowrie’s journey is weighted with symbolic value. It is a journey towards the realisation of self-value and the power this realisation brings, it “urg[es Cowrie] to get beyond feeling silenced”. It also explicitly enacts on a personal level an allegorical return to ancestral origins, for it is a fundamental premise in the book that the Maori forebears travelled to Aotearoa from Hawai’i. The connections between the two countries are stressed again and again in items and instances of equivalence that are mythical, political and mundane.

As a document urging the need to reclaim the mythology and voice of indigenous and marginalised peoples that have been lost and muted by normalising and colonising authority, Cowrie may be, as Audre Lorde suggests, “a crucial novel”. There is strength in the mythological sequences ‑ the right to avenge wronged mana is figuratively asserted in the awesome strength and beauty of the figure of Pele, the goddess of the volcano; and the inner strength to confront prejudicial cruelty is signified in the figure of Laukiamanuikahiki, the turtle women who dives back into, rather than succumb to, the destructive wave: “She never lets herself be smashed upon the beach”. But running alongside and cutting against the novel’s celebration of the discovery of the power of cultural and personal identity is a protagonist’s self‑image as brutalised victim are the weakest element of the book.

Cowrie believes herself to be the victim of prejudice not only on the basis of ethnicity but also on the basis of sexual preference: she is lesbian. One of the most significant stages in Cowrie’s journey involves her rejection by a heterosexual woman, Koana, who tells her that “every woman deserves the love of a good man” ‑ a declaration so trite that it might be laughable if it wasn’t imbued with all the weight of Dunsford’s invective. Koana’s rejection of Cowrie is the ostensible impetus for an act of utu performed in retaliation for a raft of prejudicial cruelties she believes to have been perpetrated against her ‑ the sacrificial gutting of a flesh-eating fish and the feeding of its mutilated body to a posse of half‑wild cats. Following this deed we are told that Cowrie “sobs tears of bitter pain that has accumulated over years of having to confront prejudice”. In case the reader misses its significance, in letters home Cowrie ponders the meaning of her act: “A few days ago, all my hidden rage at having to repress my feelings as an outsider in my own land surfaced and I took utu”; “was I,” she asks, “symbolically refusing to remain a victim?”

Where all this begins to gall is in Dunsford’s unsuccessful attempts to force an equivalence between Cowrie’s sense of frustrated desire (an emotional state that surely doesn’t discriminate on the basis of race or sexuality), the marginalisation enforced by prejudicial ignorance, and the atrocities of fascist brutality. One of Dunsford’s more audacious parallels should make the point. Cowrie dreams she is:

… in a line of men and women and they are all naked. They have inverted triangles tattooed on to their shoulders and are headed for a concrete building in the distance. As they move inside, they smell the stench of burning flesh. The men grasp each other. The women hug one another. There are tears. The heat is unbearable and the stink of gas rises to engulf them.

Kaolo’s rejection of Cowrie is one of a series of discriminatory acts against her that are imbued with the same stature as the death camp atrocities of Nazi Germany. This point is pummelled home a few pages later when Cowrie identifies with the gays that were gassed at Auschwitz. Not only is this analogy offensively inappropriate, but it is unoriginal ‑ among others, Sylvia Plath uses the same image to signify her (equally histrionic) sense of victimisation and thwarted love in “Daddy”.

Despite richly sensual descriptions of island cuisine and a few evocative set‑pieces, the writing in Cowrie is unremarkable. Characterisation is thin, despite frequent references to the voluptuous beauty of the “fat and luscious” female characters. The male characters are unbelievably stereotypical. Both too much and not enough is left to the reader’s imagination. The novel is too often so busy parading the badges on its sleeve that it sacrifices the finer qualities of writing along the way.

Annamarie Jagose’s In Translation eloquently portrays the unequal distribution of a three‑sided relationship and the sexuality of its protagonists is the unquestioned ground of a deeply moving story of love, loss and betrayal. I find it hard to understand the reviews that have billed this novel as comic: there is humour but its liberal application only veils and does not dispel the prevailing tone of loss.

Helena, the ostensible writer of the story, has been deserted by her lover Nevaz in the unfamiliar surrounds of an Indian city from which she now writes. Nevaz, it transpires, has left Helena to return to her previous lover, Lillian, whom she left in order to travel to India with Helena. This is only one of a series of reversals in a novel whose plot is fraught with loops, mirroring, revisions and rewritings that are further complicated by Helena’s freewheeling movement between commentaries on the present and recollections of the recent and distant past. Jagose, ostentatiously postmodern, clearly holds little respect for the unities of space and time.

Nevaz is translating a Japanese novel by the famous Nishimura (about a love triangle, no less), a task which occupied her when in India with Helena, and which she continues upon her return to Lillian in Wellington. To maintain contact with her lost love, Helena begins to intercept and read instalments of Nishimura’s novel, steaming open and resealing the airmail packages that arrive for Nevaz before forwarding them. But she is not satisfied by the mere reading of Nishimura’s novel; she begins to tamper with its construction. Jagose’s self‑reflexive gesture towards the authorising capacity of the active reader here will be readily recognisable to those familiar with the claims of reader response theory. Helena, who longs to communicate with Nevaz regardless of how mediated and one‑way the means of their communication, intercedes to write herself into the book she initially approached as a reader. She becomes increasingly creative in her (re)translations until finally, when the instalments stop arriving, she extends the ending of the book beyond Nishimura’s own conclusion.

The details of Helena’s present life in India are shot through with her recollections of times past. Through her reminiscences we are able to piece together a picture of the life and love shared among Helena, Nevaz and Lillian in Wellington. First a neighbour, then an overstaying houseguest, Helena eventually replaced Lillian in Nevaz’s bed. To all appearances Lillian, a photographer of constructed images and master of disguise, was unfazed by the shift in Nevaz’s loyalties and took to sleeping in Helena’s abandoned bed, wearing her clothes and eating her successor’s usual breakfast of grapefruit and cereal ‑ or so Helena recalls. But in the shifting labyrinth of the novel’s plot even Helena’s memories offer no certainty, as she herself acknowledges:

Perhaps you think, as I sometimes do, that, given the importance I attach to memory, or rather, given that memory is the only thing remaining to me, the following scene might be fixed in my mind, might be recalled with the certainty with which I can remember Lillian’s work. This does not seem unreasonable yet it is not so … I am suspicious even of those images I can recall without effort, which come back to me with the force of memory.

Indeed, what is memory but another translation, another subjective rewriting of images distorted through the lens of time?

In Translation is a powerful and artful novel which deserves far more sustained scrutiny than is possible in this limited space. On one level the novel explores the paucity and power of writing. It laments the impossibility of definitive (self) authorisation, for it acknowledges that all verbal constructs, not least self ‑perceptions, are always “in translation”. It also explores the capacity of language to construct sustaining (if unsustainable) “truths” and to revise, through the revisions and rewritings of remembrance, the plots within which we find ourselves: “We’re everything greater than books might mean.”

There are moments in the book which test the reader’s patience. Jagose has an annoying penchant for displaying the rather worn contents of the “postmodern” novelist’s bag of tricks: intrusive narratorial commentary (reader beware: this is a story), mis en abîme, persistent inter (and intra) textual allusion and so on. It is tempting to dismiss these lapses as evidence of a first novel coupled with the observation that Jagose is a lecturer in English literature who has recently published a book on literary theory. But if at times her abundantly self‑conscious literariness seems too forced, too clever, she never quite loses sight of the emotive core of the book. Again and again, the novel circles and returns to the numbing recognition of the loss felt by all three women and to the poverty of one‑way communication with a once-defining other. Nowhere is the sense of loss more poignantly stated than in Helena’s silent recognition that she, too, misses Lillian. This is the tragic impasse which lies at the heart of the novel, for as Helena herself realises, “while two played one must look on”.

In Shonagh Koea’s latest novel, Sing to Me, Dreamer, writing is also foregrounded as the means of meaning construction. After a sequence of traumas, young Margaret Harris fled to India from the suburban confines of Hillingdon, New Zealand, to become the mistress of a Maharajah. Among the many things an Indian holy man once sought to teach Margaret, too long a complacent reader, was the impossibility of living a perfect literary life and the power of creatively authorising her own being. But for a long time Margaret refuted this possibility. She wrote only of the pain of parental rejection and the betrayal of misplaced love.

Perhaps I had spent so long studying books and their characters that I thought in real life you could somehow write a happy lovely autobiography for yourself by your own actions, and also inscribe a happy ending. I see that as my great error. I was too literary. I had thought life could be written.

As did Helena in In Translation, the young Margaret refuted memory as a reliable tool in the search for a truthful story of self: “Much of what I write here in the holy man’s ivory tower is conjecture. It is only what I saw and may contain falsehoods or misconstructions.”

In the novelistic present after the death of her lover and her return to New Zealand, Margaret again begins to write. Midst the rubble and rubbish of her deceased mother’s final packing spree she discovers the spotless sanctuary of her childhood bedroom, made up for her return. Propped on the dresser is a note from her dead mother ‑ “My darling child, I hope one day you will return and find all the things I have bought for you”. It is no coincidence that this redemptive communication is achieved through the medium of the written word. But the true wealth that Margaret discovers is less tangible than her mother’s gifts and one she has potentially carried with her for most of her life. She has learnt the lesson of the holy man, that in the creation of one’s own life‑story “it is possible to do anything”.

Sing to Me, Dreamer sparkles with the incongruous wit of Koea’s own creative “dreaming”. It is a mark of her skilful pen that Margaret, although at times bordering on the ridiculous, never once loses her dignity. Wearing her future financial security in the form of a spangled gold bullion jacket and a variety of jewels (mistakenly dismissed as paste by all those who are equally dismissive of the eccentric blonde Hindu who has returned to Hillingdon), Margaret shares her daily meals of stale buns and fruit with a temporarily displaced circus elephant. Ignoring the raised eyebrows of the town she emerges triumphant over the ghosts of the dead and the cartons of her mother’s belongings. At one point Margaret claims “the language of language goes far beyond the meaning of the words used.” Her creator has learned this lesson well.

Kim Worthington is a lecturer in English at Victoria University of Wellington. Her Self as Narrative: Subjectivity and Contemporary Fiction is to be published soon.

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