Secker and Warburg, $24.95, ISBN 790004011
Does This Make Sense to You?
Penguin, $24.95, ISBN 0 14024946X
Faber and Faber, $22.95, ISBN 0 571173004
The Strange Letter Z
Penguin, $24.95, ISBN 0 140254099
Hodder and Stoughton, $29.95, ISBN 0 340654104
Tandem, $19.95, ISBN 0 908884699
This offering of books in the Listener women’s book festival provides a real mixed bag. Despite considerable differences in tone and quality, all but one of the novels are set (in sum or part) in New Zealand and in their representation of the country provide some interesting contrasts.
Sandy Jones, the female protagonist in In Touch, was born in the small West Coast mining town of Ngakawau (read “knocker‑war”), famous only for its shortage of women. The number of boys born in the town outweighed girls five to one, “[w]omen with big knockers died off” and “those who did survive had very small bosoms”. This is not an inconsequential narrative detail, it transpires, for it is in part the lack of a substantial bosom that enables Sandy to pull one over the staunchest bastion of New Zealand masculinity ‑ the blokes in black. Throughout her childhood Sandy played rugby in the boys’ league; and as an almost knockerless young woman she continued to play. Sandy is so good at rugby that no one thinks to question her gender, and before long she finds herself selected to represent New Zealand as an All Black on tour in Wales.
When Sandy tells the team coach that she is a woman he insists that this information must be kept from the public:
I don’t even want a hint there’s a faggot in the team. … Dead right there’s nothing in the rules says a Sheila can’t play rugby. But it won’t wash. The public won’t cope with the idea of a
woman All Black. Even those women’s libbers aren’t out burning their bras for it. You see, the thing is Kiwi jokers couldn’t face the idea of a sheila taking all that punishment out on the field. … It’ll look like 20 men are beating up one woman in full view of the crowd, cameras and reporters.
That’s the sort of thing guys need to keep private ‑ you go home and thump the missus when you’ve closed the door behind you, not have it splashed all over the papers.
Anticipated problems, like how Sandy is to avoid communal changing rooms and after‑match functions with the boys, provide some humour ‑ an artificial chest hair attachment is purchased; a top‑secret governmental task force is established to tackle the problem of her (female) passport; pills are swallowed to prevent peculiarly female problems from arising while on tour; and a tube of hormone cream is procured to get things working again once the tour has ended. An odd detail, perhaps, but a crucial one: Sandy is sent home early in disgrace and after a one‑night encounter on a train falls pregnant. The former All Black gives birth to quads (all boys, of course).
In Touch is broadly humorous but the laughs become fewer and farther between as the book progresses. In part this is due to the comedy of Sandy’s remembered past being set awkwardly against and increasingly overshadowed by a series of “serious” occurrences in the present without adequate development of character to sustain their weight: monetary complications; Sandy’s husband’s breakdown and his consequent world‑wide search for the meaning of life; and her friend’s terminal illness and death. Ultimately, the laughs are too easily bought at the expense of cultural and gender stereotypes which the book does little to dispel.
Notwithstanding significant differences in tone and intent Renée’s latest novel, Does this Make Sense to You?, stands and falls on its reliance on precisely the same kinds of cultural stereotypes which form the foundation of Sinclair’s humour. But where Sinclair jokingly makes the All Blacks and their coach the comic mouthpieces of stereotypes portrayed as silly but all good fun, they are ubiquitous and evil cultural truths in Renée’s novel: the New Zealand she portrays is a reservoir of wife‑beating, child‑abuse, familial breakdown, puritanical social repression and hatred towards its marginal members, be they Maori, lesbian or women.
Flora Thornley, the post‑menopausal wife of an adulterous and abusive husband, establishes written contact with her long‑lost daughter, Chloe, given up for adoption over 30 years ago. Chloe refuses contact with Flora (“I just want to know how a woman could give away her baby”) who leaves her marriage and seeks refuge with an old friend, Ka. Flora’s lengthy reply to Chloe’s question is ostensibly written piecemeal during her time as a guest in Ka’s house, a conventional device enabling Renée to shift between a first‑person present-tense narrative frame and a recounted personal history.
Flora’s cathartic account details her teenage pregnancy, her parents’ shocked rejection and her detention in a “home” for unmarried mothers. The home operates under a strict regime of punishment: the terrified young inmates are practically starved, kept on a diet of thin porridge and bread (smaller babies make easier births), are worked to the point of exhaustion and are not allowed to disclose their full names to each other; their letters are censored and rare outside visits are supervised. All the babies are immediately appropriated and given up for adoption. One desperate young woman kills her newborn baby and commits suicide rather than submit to separation after a particularly traumatic birth.
The home is beside an orphanage ‑ to which “undesirable” babies, unsuitable for adoption because “of mixed race or afflicted with some disability”, are sent. They are without toys, affection or adequate food and clothing. It is a place of desolation and despair, all the more horrific for its silence:
No doubt you’ve seen similar scenes on television when they showed the Rumanian [sic] orphanages and no doubt you were shocked and appalled. Well, believe me, Rumania didn’t invent those hellish places, just like the Nazis didn’t invent concentration camps. They merely refined them.
Parallels drawn between the cesspool of New Zealand society and the great tragedies of contemporary global politics are not uncommon in the novel: Romania, Rwanda, Bosnia, South Africa are all mentioned or alluded to in comparison. Something about this galls for it not only cheapens the horror of these international tragedies, but cheapens the emotional veracity of the novel. Flora’s story is poignant and compelling, but its intensity and momentum is continually diffused by clumsy didacticism and intrusive returns to the narrative present. The forced separation of a mother and her child should carry sufficient weight without the need for sensationalism masquerading as earnest social “realism”. Perhaps such institutions did exist in New Zealand in the 1960s; intolerance, racial hatred and child abuse certainly existed, still exist and need exposure. Nonetheless, one can’t help feeling that Renée has found her precedents in Dickens or Brontë rather than in contemporary New Zealand society. Does This Make Sense to You? feeds on and sustains negative stereotypes rather than challenges or subverts them.
Kirsty Gunn’s short novel, Rain, provides a remarkable contrast. In this, her first novel, Gunn too deals with the breakdown of a family, the abuse of childhood’s sanctity, the loss of one most deeply loved. But she works through controlled understatement, offering a portrait of individual psychology without any heavy‑handed attempt to extrapolate universal social truths. The Lake Taupo setting is incidental, but evocative, an externalisation of the narrator’s psyche; pain is displaced into metaphor and intensity accumulates through resonant imagery that shrouds the novel like the rain which settles on the lake. Jane’s narrative is neither confessional nor explanatory but deeply private, an outpouring of memory that drips and swells and floods the most intimate contours of her mind.
So much water. Miles of it under you, washing through underwater caves, one shelf of water tipping over into another, vast secret lakes, a whole world of water beneath, prehistoric. It has hundreds of miles of water washing through itself in endless, moonless tides. …
The water has them, those people you pretend were your life. It has you. It’s water’s pulse beating in your wrist now. You know it too. The lake, she’s your lovely body now with all her openings. Close your eyes, she’s still there. Some days the surface of water is pulled over like satin, others it’s rumpled and bony. There’s your memory. Pure images of tide and depth and the colour of the water.
Jane recounts one summer at the family bach. Hers is a dysfunctional family, tainted by the pervasive rot of her mother’s narcissism: Jane’s father has been sucked into his wife’s solipsistic world to normalise and sustain it and the children ‑ 12‑year‑old Jane and 5‑year‑old Jim ‑ are left to fend for themselves. Jane duplicates her father’s blind love in her possessive mothering of her younger brother Jim: “I wanted only quietness, the two of us alone together. Queer wishes for a girl”; “Later I found that lovers did this, had the instinct to be solitary while wanting glances, touches to ensnare them”. But Jane is growing up, her emerging sexuality making discordant waves:
I think I knew already the whole sad fact of children trying to escape. We’re always trying, always thinking: tomorrow. Forever holding our breath in bed, hoping that there’ll be an easy death…
Jim’s is the easy death. He drowns in the lake while on shore Jane is seduced by one of her mother’s (male) friends. Her guilt and pain are too profound for direct expression and perhaps most spectacular is the controlled objectivity of the attempted resurrection scene. This is a stunning novel that achieves in beautiful prose an outstanding evocation of the depth of loss and the haunting power of guilty memory.
If Gunn’s novel impresses for its elegance and psychological acuity, Debra Daley’s The Strange Letter Z (also her first novel) is impressive for quite different reasons: its fast pace and slick intelligence makes for an altogether more racy read. Daley’s verbal dexterity and often striking imagery (despite the occasional lapse into silly extravagance: “a moody sea frottaging itself against hunching cliffs”) mirrors well the glossy world of international high fashion through which her two principle characters move.
Nerida and Alexis both leave New Zealand to pursue glamorous careers abroad, they meet in Paris, share a mutual admiration of each other’s glorious bodies, fall passionately in love and settle in London. They are beautiful people, “slaves to sensation”, she a model turned photographer, he a renowned linguist, darling of the international academic conference circuit. They pity and despise the mundane and ordinary, indeed, “[w]hat messenger from the fates seeking to cultivate a face in the crowd would choose a plain person?” But after a honeymoon period of explosive sex and intellectual provocation things begin to sour. Alexis, Nerida learns, is “afflicted”. There is something wrong with the (linguistic) “deep structure” of his brain, a kind of neurological dysfunction stimulated by the (strange) letter Z to which he is magnetically attracted. Increasingly seizures render him incapable of serious thought, until his despair threatens to destroy them both.
Enter Drusilla, Alexis’s evil older sister, who arrives in London to appraise Nerida (“I think you’re just a little girl who likes to fuck”). She holds Alexis in thrall, it appears that her manipulative childhood games gave rise to the malevolent sorcery of the letter Z. Drusilla convinces Alexis and Nerida to return with her to Mexico, ostensibly to enable Alexis to research the Tzotzil grammar of the Zincanteco natives who populate the area; in fact Drusilla aims to strengthen her hold on Alexis and oust Nerida. The novel climaxes, after various plot complications and several memorable sex scenes, with Nerida fleeing Mexico for New Zealand.
Two and a half years later Alexis tracks her down and, having laid the ghost of Z and the obsessive incestuous power of Drusilla to rest, they settle into suburban bliss, opting to “give up the storm‑tossed life”:
[Nerida] was no longer glamorous, but it filled her with satisfaction to pay the electricity bill, to plant salad greens in the garden and to teach sometimes at a polytechnic … the seasons made sense … You could grow roses side by side with fan palms.
The destructiveness of unrequited narcissism speaks its own powerful message in the novel, without needing this trite conclusion, as redundant as it is disappointing. The power and energy of this very clever book lies in its evocation of ruthless sexual energy and a world of deadly vanity and surface pretension. This sits uncomfortably against the rather pedestrian assertion of the selflessness of true love and the reclamation of a chastened, pastoral New Zealand as the locus of all that is valuable.
From reclaimed pastoral to the ridiculous sublime, Lindsey Dawson’s lightweight novel, Angel Baby, offers a similar message about the triumph of love in a late‑twentieth-century world collapsing under the weight of selfish individualism. An angel on patrol, “one of many souls whose job it is to watch over the earth” and maintain the integrity of a huge “spiritual web” that surrounds it, accidentally gets trapped inside the body of a (New Zealand) baby, Philip Preston.
With the help of a journalist, Cyn Moon, the pint‑sized prophet takes it upon himself to spread the message of universal love and goodwill via television. For much of the novel an evil spiderman, Martin Vortex, subjects Cyn to the power of his negative energy, but together with a sagacious old man, a television talk‑show host and a couple of magic rocks, Philip and Cyn manage to rout Vortex and others of his ilk, the ominous “Signal Threaders” who seek to tap into the web’s energy. The clumsy first‑person, present‑tense prose is sustained with some difficulty and makes for awkward reading; Dawson unashamedly stacks one new age cliché upon another; and the book is certainly not recommended reading for those with even mild arachnophobia.
Rosie Scott, while claimed as one of our own, now lives in Australia, a fact reflected in the Australian setting of her latest novel, Movie Dreams. It is not only this which marks the novel as distinct from the others reviewed here, for in it Scott successfully utilises an adolescent male narrator, achieving a fine evocation of teenage paranoia and despair. Seventeen-year‑old Adan, apparently running from a botched drug deal, leaves behind his Brisbane home and his dreams of entering film school. He is, in fact, fleeing the emotional repercussions of his best friend’s suicide and his own intuition of the dark underside of everyday life. In this unremitting novel there is no place to go, no escape from a pervasive depravity: “Ordinary life was just as much a cover anyway, everything went on smoothly and seemed to be the real thing but all the time underneath people … were stalking around full of sickness and drugs and death and they were just as real”. “The whole world seemed fucked” ‑ a comment that would make an apt epigraph for the novel in which everyone is defeated, drugged or in destructive self‑denial.
Adan’s experiences on the road to Cairns are almost surreally menacing and the city itself, while a temporary haven, is manifestly worse. He finds work as a kitchen-hand in a café run by an oddly nonchalant but glamorous Frenchman, Jean‑Pierre, and his sister, Sofie. One day he stumbles on the pair in bed and understands that they mirror his own self‑consuming hermeticism: “they knew what it was like to keep dangerous things hidden inside and not let yourself think about them and how defenceless that made you.” The novel ends with him on the road again, recoiling from the primitive horror of unresting crocodiles he imagines in a mangrove swamp: “It was so evil … any minute something would come out of that black cave and get me and I wouldn’t have a chance. Something really old and wild with no mind.”
Despite ‑ or because of ‑ Scott’s skill, Movie Dreams makes for depressing reading. There is little plot and no resolution; there can be no end to a horror one harbours within and projects on to the landscapes through which one moves. Scott achieves an impressionistic intensity through cumulative imagery which is wholly appropriate in a novel in which the protagonist lacks words to express his fear and despair and instead translates everything he sees into hackneyed film images and empty movie dreams.
Kim Worthington teaches English at Victoria University of Wellington.