Of an age, Heather Murray

River Lines
Elspeth Sandys
Hodder Moa Beckett, $29.95, ISBN 3 4059998 7

Leather Wings
Marilyn Duckworth
Random House Vintage, $24.95, ISBN 1 86941 261 3

Sheridan Keith
Penguin, $24.95, ISBN 0 14025281 9

The House Guest
Barbara Anderson
Victoria University Press, $24.95, ISBN 0864732880

Elspeth Sandys’ River Lines is a historical romance in the Nelle M Scanlan Pencarrow tradition. The Duttons are Canterbury gentry who have farmed at Cheyney Grange since the 1870s. Sir Arthur Dutton had the sense to marry money ‑ Lady Margaret, née Ainsley Bower, was perfect in every way ‑ so that the Duttons have consolidated their assets when others had to sell during the depression. Shrewd side investments in a mining company and the Christchurch Coke and Coal Co mean that the family maintains a formidable presence: the town house in Fendalton, a son at Christ’s College and a seat in Parliament.

Young Sarah Dutton at 16 experiences twinges of guilt at the sight of men working in a relief camp for 7/6 (75c) a day, a sum she thinks nothing of spending in a single visit to Ballantyne’s. But her beloved brother, Richard Arthur Cecil Dutton, reminds her that respect should be accorded those who acquire and hang on to money. He is off to Cambridge, ultimately to do his bit as a pilot in World War II. Sarah must struggle on at home against the restraints of family, class and gender (and the unusually strong feelings she harbours for R A C Dutton).

Different in every way from the Duttons are the Byrnes. Pearse O’Connell Byrne won his 500 acres in a ballot in 1907. With few resources save his own strength, he tamed the acres of briar and gorse and prospered, but his single-mindedness demanded great sacrifice from his family. A quick one‑way trip to the river is the only way out for his wife, worn down by her husband’s fanatical desire to succeed and her unrelenting child‑bearing. Their daughter, Deidre May Byme, inherits a disastrous single‑mindedness of her own as the result of her parentage and upbringing: patterns repeating themselves is one of Sandys’ themes. Most of the novel deals with the mixing, merging and diverging of the two family lines, the ebb and flow of family power. Like a river, the two lines continuously connect and separate. A third family, the McLeans of Otago, makes up the complement of characters.

All the favourite themes of the historical romance are here: breaking in the land, the harshness of pioneering, loveless marriages, bastard children seeking their real parents, children rebelling against parents, revenge, coincidence, the rise and fall of dynasties, corruption and disintegration, not to mention the struggle of artists in a utilitarian, philistine society. Elspeth Sandys is generous with plot.

Elspeth Sandys is currently Burns Fellow at Otago University, and her novel, River Lines, has been selected as one of the “Top 20 Titles” for this year’s Listener women’s book festival.

Not selected for this year’s women’s book festival is Marilyn Duckworth’s thirteenth novel, Leather Wings. Duckworth is our most prolific novelist. Her subject matter is the daily lives of women. Yet none of her novels have been selected for attention during any women’s book festival, nor has she ever been invited as a touring speaker. Why is this? Is she not good enough? Are her credentials not quite right? As winner of numerous scholarships, awards and prizes, a former Mansfield Fellow at Menton and a Fulbright Visiting Writer, as well as holder of fellowships at Victoria University and in Scotland and as a very fine novelist over 30 years, Duckworth’s credentials look impressive and one would imagine that in any group being selected on merit Duckworth would be there with bells on. But to glance through previous lists of highlighted books is to suspect that literary merit is not the sole requirement and that other forces ‑ perhaps commercial, perhaps political ‑ are at work in determining who is chosen. Since Duckworth is in the middle of a particularly productive period ‑ three novels and one novella in the last three years ‑ and since she is currently Frank Sargeson Fellow in Auckland, she might have expected to be included this year. To leave her out again is perverse.

If it is true that we all have within us the makings of one or two novels, then Marilyn Duckworth has moved well beyond her store of life’s experience into the realm of genuine creativity. The starting point for Leather Wings (according to a press release) was Duckworth’s interest in addiction and in the thought that people are lucky if the thing to which they are addicted is socially acceptable, such as chocolate or conventional sex. What if a person is irresistibly drawn to something that society finds repulsive? Such as a man’s attraction to small girls? Enter Wallace, the Rawleighs door‑to‑door salesman, unloved by his mother and departed father, a few shillings short of the pound, but bright enough to recognise and try to resist the “devil” driving him:

Devils are undoers: they do evil well but good things only badly. It all starts coming undone, unravelling. When I left school I wanted a “good” job more than anything in the world (well, almost anything; not more than that), but good jobs kept letting me go, like something weak and slippery … Not quite unemployable, however. Today I am in employment, my own man.

He is a good and methodical salesman, with insights into the lives of his customers. One of them is Esther, grandmother of young Jania upon whom Wallace soon fastens his attention. Unfortunately for Jania, the people who should be caring for her are not “all there” either, being distinctly short in the loving and nurturing departments. Jania is foisted upon her middle‑aged grandparents when her mother dies and her father fails to care sufficiently for her to put her interests first. While he “finds” himself, Jania is sent from Canada to New Zealand like a parcel. Her grandparents do their best, but grandfather Rex is preoccupied with failing health and grandmother Esther is too busy staving off age by holding down a demanding job and dallying with her lover, the hot‑footed Donald (Odoreaters and orthotic arch supports). She writes a Mills and Boon in the spare moments. Who will love and care for Jania? Into the void steps Wallace artfully, drawing himself ever closer to the object of his desire. Duckworth manages his insinuation beautifully and the dramatic end, although expected, is compelling.

Duckworth’s characters are never entirely good or bad: Wallace the child molester is not a monster but, like the other characters, a fallible human being. All are culpable in Jania’s neglect, save Wallace, whose attentions are not those she needs. Esther’s struggle to create a useful life for herself and avoid the long slide into decrepitude which has claimed her husband redeems her for the reader. Jania is genuinely a child and not, as lesser novelists often give us, a cute miniature adult. I can’t think of a writer who creates more believable children than Duckworth.

A very impressive novel: like a magician Duckworth creates out of thin air. Perhaps a reason for her neglect in some quarters is that she works so quickly and efficiently that we do not always see how clever she has been. The joins don’t show.

(Here’s hoping the novel does not put people off the Rawleigh’s man, a stalwart and stoical breed, delivering salves and spices door to door ‑ although I did begin to have doubts about my own Rawleigh’s man when, as an ardent Muldoon supporter, decrier of “stirrers” and a short‑back-and‑sideser for 70‑odd years, he suddenly appeared on the doorstep one day with his hair permed.)

Sheridan Keith’s first novel, Zoology, extends a short story of the same name published in her second short fiction collection, Animal Passions (1992). The shorter story prevented her exploring the lives of the minor characters and how they were entwined with the central character, Stephen Fleming. With her dual training in zoology and English, Keith is one of the few novelists to make an exploration of scientific principles central to the fabric of a novel. A S Byatt tried it in her novella Morpho Eugenia (1988) but failed to assimilate a plethora of scientific fact which ultimately overwhelmed character and plot. Keith succeeds brilliantly, her shrewd observations on human and animal behaviour providing a refreshingly intellectual framework for character and action

There are more ideas in the novel than may be summarised in a short review, but readers who cherish an opinion that humankind is nature’s last word and finest achievement ‑ distinctly a cut above whatever comes second or third ‑ may find in the course of reading about the unfortunate downfall and demise of Stephen that they are disabused of the notion. Keith does a nice line in putting humans in their place ‑ alongside feathered and furred, but definitely part of a flawed creation. Keith asks, too, the deeper question of whether nature itself hasn’t got things ever so slightly out of kilter: is there not more energy being expended than is strictly necessary to perpetuate species? But Keith does it all with the lightest of touches, a fine and inventive use of language, gentle irony and a kindly eye.

Keith begins by killing off Stephen on the first page and then retraces the steps by which a fiftyish man who should in the general scheme of things expect another 20‑odd years of living begins to feel the life and cherished illusions ebb out of him. He can’t be bothered any longer. His sense is of not evolving, of being left behind by an increasingly aggressive and irrelevant society which marks as one of its high points the invention of the exercycle, that almost dadaist metaphor for an age going nowhere frenetically. Keith is very good at deaths: obviously it is an experience not to be missed, with its own consolations for the one making the last grand exit, for she kills him off again ‑ but differently ‑ at the end:

[Death] The lightest lover slid into Stephen’s bed more gently than any flesh‑and‑bone partner. Camp‑follower, eternal dancing partner. Darker certainly, but of such a lightness, such unshakeable loyalty.

The heart attack is ironically some sort of victory for Stephen. How well, too, Keith writes about sex. Only recently, Bryan James, book editor of the Otago Daily Times, was moved by the latest steamy blockbuster under review to ask “whether we have ever written about sex so much and so poorly and why?”. Women novelists, according to James, write no more imaginatively about sex than do men and in their desire to be “equal” merely repeat the old patriarchal structures, with very little “intuition, imagination, lyricism and the more specific qualities that celebrate women’s ‘otherness'”. Well, for James and for those bored with the old sexual charades I suggest a dip into this novel. Sheridan Keith takes the tired and inherently ridiculous act (never mind how pleasurable) and makes it new ‑ lyrical, poetic, and liberating. Perhaps, to answer James, the reason why so many write so badly about sex is that they, unlike Keith, fail to see the need for the distancing touch of irony, or that more is not necessarily better.

There are so many delightful things about the novel: some fine writing about food and gardening (parterres versus “the amoeba‑shaped beds of the ‘Surrey School'”), zoos, our failure to communicate one with another as efficiently as do monkeys who, denied the power of speech, must talk through touch, and on the antics of the Australian brolga bird:

Each [bird] contentedly groomed itself, necks were angled to arrive at hard‑to‑reach places around various anatomical corners, wings were unfolded halfway for the time it took to rifle through the feathers, then closed abruptly like fans. The beaks impersonated the fingers of embroiderers, in and out, around and through, weaving their way among the feathers, cleaning, preening.

The women in Stephen’s life are real and varied: Elaine, the first wife, the only wife he had truly loved but who left him with not a word said. Stephen never got over it: the perfection of his image of her meant that everything post Elaine was spoiled. Beth, the second wife and mother of two very different daughters, who tries to draw close to someone by working for the ironically named social agency, CLOSE, which provides listeners for telephone conversations from distraught citizens ‑ the requirement for CLOSE listeners is that they should observe a professional distance. And the youthful Alexa, still “constructing” herself from the raw material provided by nature, drawn to the sophistication of Stephen and puzzled as to why he should decline her offers of sex. She is an original: dressed from an op shop in snakeskin shoes and castoffs, stricken by asthma, riding a bike and taking to bed each night a sage‑green rhinocerous. All in all, an intelligent and witty novel; there was nothing about it I did not like.

Barbara Anderson’s fourth novel is The House Guest. By now she has built up a steady fan club of readers who enjoy her droll style and demolition of dearly‑held myths. Hardly anyone escapes the Anderson eye ‑ may I never be stuck in a stopped lift with her! ‑ and she keeps herself well up to date on the latest fad and buzz word. She is not a savage, “at‑every‑word‑a‑reputation‑dies” sort of writer: simply an amused participant and recorder of the daily round. I enjoyed Portrait of the Artist’s Wife a good deal, it is her best book. But with this fourth novel I find the Anderson touch has become a little predictable and that she relies too heavily on the laid‑back style, which of course has its wonderful moments, but here carries too much of the novel on its back, leading to a neglect of character delineation, particularly noticeable at the start, and to a curious diminution of what should be the highs and lows of plot. The novel stretches out to the horizon like a peneplain and the tracks are hard to find.

Robin Dromgoole, a student of English at Victoria University, is coming to terms with his youth spent in a largely female neighbourhood with few fathers about. Also he is researching the life and writings of a mysterious New Zealand writer, Alice O’Leary and her relationship with his neighbour Candida Bowman, with whom she had stayed once as a house guest, and the girl she cares for, young Emmeline. Something of a literary detective story, with forays into Central Otago in pursuit of the truth. Why did Alice stop writing? Why did she marry? Ultimately too much of the truth is revealed in a lengthy reported narrative by Wil, the Otago farmer. Many will have lost interest before this.

In the “useless information department” I’ll add (in case any sociologists out there are researching class and literary output) that these four novels were written by women over 55 years of age who went to private schools and are university educated.

Heather Murray is a Dunedin literary researcher. She coedited From the Mainland ‑ an Anthology of South Island Writing.

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