From history to autobiography, Chris Prentice

Stevan Eldred‑Grigg
Penguin, $22.95
ISBN 0140 252444

The cover of Stevan Eldred‑Grigg’s latest novel, Mum, announces this work as the conclusion of the Oracles & Miracles series. Oracles & Miracles, the first novel of the trilogy presents, in alternated first‑person narratives (with some interspersed narratives from “the historian” and “the industrial psychologist”) the lives of twins Ginnie and Fag Feron, two working class girls‑becoming‑women. Although it is narrated sometime in the future, when Ginnie and Fag are middle‑aged, it is set historically in the period from the 1930s to the 1950s, ending with the twenty‑first birthdays of Ginnie and Fag, both now married and young mothers, but having moved apart into their different social worlds.

The sequel to this novel, The Shining City, follows the same strategy of alternating first person accounts. This time, the narrators are Ashley, the son of Fag and her husband Roddie Carrel, and Ashley’s cousin Christopher, the son of Diana (Roddie’s sister) and her husband Maxwell Urquhart. There are also passages interspersed from such sources as “the newspaper columnist”, “the newspaper advertiser”, “the magazine advertiser” and others. The cousins echo the different social worlds into which Ginnie and Fag had eventually moved, although Ashley’s is in itself divided between the working‑class background of his mother and the background of greater wealth and privilege represented by Roddie and Diana Carrel. This novel is set in the Christchurch of the 1960s and 1970s and is replete with the idiom and preoccupations of teenagers of the era.

Now the third novel, Mum, rather than simply extending the generations along this same line, backtracks to alternate the narrative between two of Ginnie’s children, James ‑ young Jimmy who appears toward the end of Oracles & Miracles ‑ and his sister Viv ‑ with whom Ginnie was probably pregnant at the end of that first novel. (Oracles & Miracles, p260) The motif of different social worlds is evoked once more, this time partly within James himself, in the contrast between his working‑class background and the world he has entered through his marriage to Wendy and also partly in the circumstances of James and Wendy in their comfortable old house in one of Christchurch’s rather gracious older suburbs, compared with Viv’s, evoked not so much in detailed depiction of her own present circumstances, but more in her response to James’s. The private hospital in which the birth of James’s and Wendy’s first child takes place is deprecatingly and resentfully referred to by Viv as “this poofy, precious, pretentious, bloody dump” (p19) and generally her language, although vivid, is apparently less polished by education and pretention than her brother’s.

This time there are no extraneous narrative voices or textual passages. Mum begins in 1975 and the “action” covers a relatively narrow passage of time from this point. Indeed the “present” operates in the novel rather like a set of interruptions in the processes and increasing revelations of memory, rather like the motif of the interruptions of the answerphone in Eldred‑Grigg’s immediately preceding book, My History, I think. The real focus is on James’s and Viv’s respective memories of their childhood, growing up with Ginnie as Mum and numerous other siblings in working-class Christchurch (Jaz’s death has been established, early in the novel and for a time Ginnie’s brutish brother Jock ‑ see Oracles & Miracles ‑ moves in to “help”).

If language is one marker of the difference between the characters of James and Viv, then the apparently irreconcilable differences in their memories of the past is perhaps the most compelling, urging the reader on to discover how two such different pictures of childhood could emerge from siblings so close in age. The significance of the life and death of their father is a case in point. Viv: “Dad? Dear old Dad. Dad I can remember ‑ I think ‑ from the day I first walked. … The memory is of me walking into his arms. Her arms were never held out to me, never in all the years I was a kid ‑ not that I wanted her to hold them out anyway. Yuk! What a disgusting idea. The thought of it makes me want to spew!” (p36) Her shock at his death (“Dad, where are you? Why did you die? Why did you leave me and die …. Dad, do you want me dead?”) (p61) contrasts with the response of James (named Jimmy for passages relating to childhood memory): “Dad’s death meant nothing much, since Dad had never really been there ‑ his demise was an abstract experience, the loss of someone already lost”. (p59)

From the beginning, Viv exudes bitterness towards Ginnie, her loathing no more extreme than when she represents Ginnie as a physical presence in her childhood: “The bitch was a big person. The basic frame was massive ‑ big bones, was what she said ‑ and laid down on top of that was layer after layer of fat. All in all she was a real mound of meat”. (p65; see also p141) James, on the other hand, disclaims understanding of Viv’s anger: “Why do you talk so … rough? I can’t understand why you always seem so angry.” (p24) He is the new father of a daughter whom he and his social worker wife Wendy have named Janet Feron Smith after Ginnie. He looks after the baby while Wendy has returned to work and his days are punctuated by visits from grandmother Ginnie, who expresses repeated satisfaction at “me first grandchild”. Why is Viv so vehement in her refutation of this? And what lies behind James’s insistence in the face of her cursing of Ginnie, that “You don’t really mean that, but it’s awful the way you talk about Mum. She did well by us, Viv, you need to forgive her, it’s time to let all that rest. It was so hard for Mum and she had so little but she did her best and things have ended really well.”? (p24)

Memory, then, is both the object and the mode of examination of lives in this novel but, unlike the similar use of this focus and strategy in Oracles & Miracles, in Mum the tone is darker. The reader who approaches Mum through Oracles & Miracles and The Shining City no doubt feels inclined toward sympathy for Ginnie: in the first novel she was the “intuitive”, “sensitive”, “plain”, “nice” one; and even though her appearances in the second novel are brief and few they are generally in terms of her expressions of selfless and simple thoughtfulness, the fact that she was “liked” by Ashley, who thought his own mother, Fag, was “weird”. I was irritated by the bitterness of Viv and wished to resolve the disorienting picture she paints of Ginnie by dismissing it as an unpleasant distortion in her own character or maybe even as a reflection of the perceptions of inconsistent treatment meted out to different children within a family, perhaps on the basis of gender: there seems something almost conventional in Viv’s preference for her father and wish to dis‑identity with her mother, who, she recalls, “liked boys, not girls” (p100) ‑ perhaps an echo of Ginnie’s and Fag’s perception of Mum Feron in Oracles &Miracles. Nevertheless it is still hard to dismiss the sheer moving power of a passage such as the following from Viv, early in the novel:

Pretend you’re still a kid. Pretend you’re a little kid at the end of a school day, and you’re walking home and you know your mother’s in the kitchen in a bad mood and you’re trailing home and dreaming, and dreading the thought of her and you feel sort of pathetically grateful that there’s school again tomorrow cause that means you won’t have to spend the day watching out for that angry woman at home and you feel scared and you feel sick with the scared feeling, and you feel lonely … oh christ you feel so fucking lonely, you feel so alone, nobody in the world loves you or even knows you’re alive ‑ and you’re not alive, you’re alive but you’re buried, you’re dead‑and‑alive in a dead‑and‑alive dump called your home. (p25)

So sources of tension in the novel include the discrepancy between Viv’s and James’s memories, as well as the apparent fearfulness and horror of Viv’s Ginnie.

However, another source of tension lies with the tone of James’s own narrated recollections. James’s most sympathetic memories of Ginnie are often juxtaposed with Viv’s most damning (for example, pp100‑2). The very restraint and reason of James’s narratives, the determination of his rationalising excuses for Ginnie (for example, pp116‑17), suggest repression. Indeed, as the novel progresses the veils of this repression gradually lift, drawing the reader into a nightmarish labyrinth of images whose meanings are no less horrifying than they are mysterious.

There is the recurring memory of the refrain repeated in his infancy, “Mummy’s a magpie”; and Ginnie’s amused accounts of young Jimmy as “a basher”, referring to his repeated bashing of his own head against walls; then there are the recurring nightmare visions which, pieced together, involve “a red worm. The roots of a willow. Slipping through water, a cormorant swallows an eel. I see myself, a small white boy, lying in a bath. My body feels light. The bathroom is formless, filled with steam. A dark man pushes open a door and seems instantly to occupy the space all the way up to a cloudy ceiling. The man reaches down through the clouds and through the soapy water…” (p292) Finally, there are James’s recurring nightmare visions of the death of his baby daughter, Janet.

Viv is revealed to be clearer about the past and what happened to her and, ironically, also to James. Having described Ginnie’s preference for boys, she adds that “the boys she liked were real boys. Jimmy she despised because he was weedy and white”. (p100) It takes more time for James to accept Viv’s prompting, to acknowledge his own decreasing tolerance of Ginnie during her visits and to admit his own buried memories back into consciousness. Although there are disturbing occasional admissions by James of a kind of masochistic wish to be hurt, it is to a large extent the question of their own parenthood which throws the need for resolution into relief:

“You know why I’ll never have babies?” [Viv] snaps. “I won’t because I’m scared of what I might do to them.”

“I feel slightly scared myself.”

“What? Why?”

“I’m scared I might do to them what she did to us.” (p167)

This resolution occurs, for James and Viv, in their confrontation of Ginnie and of the unspoken conspiracy of secrets and lies about the past. Yet the resolution is one more within and between James and Viv, than with Ginnie.

But there are other problems of resolution. As a kind of “recovered memory” novel, Mum is both moving and gruelling. The unfolding of James’s narrative of repression and denial through the repetition and echoing of images and motifs is effective and compelling. However these qualities, while pointing toward resolution within Mum as an autonomous work, effect the opposite for the trilogy with which this novel culminates.

I am left wondering how to resolve the Ginnie of the first and second novels with that of the third. The Shining City offered no real challenges to the status of Oracles & Miracles and its characters; as a sequel it was a believable extension into the next generation, albeit with its own direction in character development and thematic preoccupations. Fag was “weird” in a way that cohered with her character in the first novel and Ginnie was similarly self‑denying and “nice”. However, not only is this Ginnie, liked by nephew Ashley in The Shining City, necessarily also in terms of time‑frame the Ginnie feared and loathed by her own children (such a contradiction almost approaches credibility, given the very different views possible from the relative “outside” compared to “behind the closed doors” of family life itself), but the Ginnie of Mum must also be the Ginnie who is narrating her sections of Oracles & Miracles from her vantage‑point in middle‑age. There are indications in The Shining City that Ginnie’s life has become more deeply troubled by financial worries and the problems associated with Jaz’s drinking (ppl7‑18); there were even occasional indications of vulnerability and sorrow attributed to Ginnie in Mum. (p67) Yet it is still difficult to reconcile, not only as character but as narrator, the Ginnie of Mum with the woman in Oracles & Miracles who remembers so vividly her childhood hardships and disappointments, her own dreams, ultimately relinquished for the familiarity of her background which is emotionally if not materially almost “comfortable”. The Ginnie of Mum inspires her children to terror with her rages and loathing at her sluttishness. With this latter quality, she can not even be seen as a repetition of Mum Feron, who while often “fierce”, was as likely to apply that vehemence of affect to her housekeeping activities as to her children.

I wonder whether my disorientation relates to what I see as a change in the direction of the trilogy as a “project” from the first to the third of the novels. Oracles & Miracles was explained by Eldred‑Grigg (“Oracles and Miracles: Working Class Novel, Okay?” Sites No 16) as the outcome of an oral history project which sought to capture, preserve and celebrate something of the “culture” of working‑class women of the 1930s, with their own particular ways of speaking and of transmitting their sense of “place” to their children. While the novel is wonderfully memorable in these as well as in more straightforwardly fictional terms, combining moving pathos with piquant humour, Eldred‑Grigg, perhaps with the novel’s links to a history project still uppermost in his mind, has expressed disapproval of response to Mum Feron as likely soon to be “regarded as one of ‘the great characters in our fiction'”. (Sites, p120) It is almost as if her “historical reality” would be neutralised by reduction to the status of fictional character. And yet the “problem” of the extent to which Oracles & Miracles has captured readers’ imaginations remains, to some extent haunting the reception of the second novel ‑ and I suggest also the third ‑ for those who approach the novel within the trilogy.

I have described the sense of disorientation in reading Mum after Oracles & Miracles. How, after Mum, is it possible to return to Oracles & Miracles with that same sense of imaginative and sympathetic engagement ‑ indeed enjoyment? “Me and Fag was born on the double bed Mum and the old man slept in”. These are the words that begin Oracles & Miracles, drawing the reader immediately into both the world and the engaging character and narrative of Ginnie. In Mum they become debased into the tediously repeated ravings of an irritating old woman. If in fact “enjoyment” was a problematic response to Oracles & Miracles, tending as it might towards the romanticisation of a “culture” that was, after all, the outcome of an exploitative capitalist class system (as I argued in “Romancing the Other: Oracles & Miracles, A Literature of Dreamland”, Journal of New Zealand Literature Vol 9, pp36‑52), then what has been lost in this dismantling of anything that was positive and worth celebrating in their lives? A critical focus on the economic system into which the Ferons were inserted towards the bottom end, a focus which was kept alive through the contributions of the “historian”, is apparently dispensed with in this latest novel. The alternation of narrative only between James and Viv offers little perspective outside one which will affirm the guilt of Ginnie herself. So how does this reflect on the coherence of the trilogy as it was first presented?

Answers to this may lie in the second novel and to some extent also in the separate publication of My History I think, a book described on the inside blurb as “neither autobiography, nor yet fiction”, suggesting not necessarily that it is neither but that it approaches the condition of both. Put another way, the problem and the answer may both lie in the blurring of boundaries between, first, history and fiction and, now, between fiction and autobiography.

Indeed, the seeds of such a move go back to Eldred-Grigg’s account of the writing of Oracles & Miracles itself, although the apparent shift of affect is extreme: “The answers I attempted to satisfy myself with got tangled up in childhood feelings about my mother and her sisters, warm strong feelings that made me want to write about women like them’. (Sites, p 114) This is not to say that any of the works is strictly autobiographical nor that any of the characters bears a straightforward correspondence to Eldred-Grigg himself. However, when Gerry Webb reviewed My History, I think in New Zealand Books (December 1994) he pointed out: “The mother is an important figure in the book who is presented sympathetically, even here where revulsion is registered. She is a source of knowledge, as when she is reported as telling the author he doesn’t know he’s alive (p2). She bears an obvious resemblance to Fag, the mother of Ashley in The Shining City. In fact the account of Eldred-Grigg’s early life in My History leads one to infer that Ashley and his family are closely based on the author’s life.” My point is not the accuracy or otherwise of Webb’s reading but, rather, how uncannily the first sentence cited above could be used for large amounts of James’s narrative in Mum.

Similarly, it is uncanny that Ginnie occupies the position of mother as effectively in the above terms as Fag did. And it is finally uncanny that instead of Ashley we have James: for, while this name corresponds to the name of toddler at the end of Oracles & Miracles, it is also shared with the figure of the young James Courage with whom the writer in My History, I think, is preoccupied in a relationship of identification, organised among other ways around the motif, “the young have secrets”, a very resonant one for Mum itself.

It seems, then, that the “historical” project of Oracles & Miracles, with its focus on the lives of working class women, has given way to a complex autobiographical one which, while it represents the working through of a confusion of .secret shames”, conceals enough of the facts of correspondence by dispersing elements across texts and characters, to avoid the sometimes insufficiently problematised label of autobiography. One of the “secrets” may well have been the historian’s (Eldred‑Grigg’s) implication in his own “history” in Oracles & Miracles and this may be what Mum ultimately redresses. This would be consistent with the observation in My History, I think, that “the hidden history is the history of the historian”. (p189) I admire the intellectual honesty this strategy would entail. Nevertheless, while having found Mum a profoundly affecting novel, I must conclude by owning my own sense of the loss of something in the return to the first novel and make that feeling the beginning of further re‑examinations of both the novels and of my own reading investments.

Chris Prentice lectures in English at Otago University. 

Oracles & Miracles was published in 1987, The Shining City in 1991 and My History, I think in 1994, all by Penguin.

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