A noisy life’s work, Rose Lovell-Smith

The Other Side of Silence
Margaret Mahy
Hamish Hamilton
ISBN 0 241135516

The Other Side of Silence, Mahy’s latest book for older children, was shortlisted for the Esther Glen Award in 1997 but did not win. I find it more interesting than the other shortlisted books, but I can see that it might not impress readers as much as some of Mahy’s earlier novels for older children. Perhaps by now it is hard for judges of such competitions to keep assessing Mahy fairly. The temptation to judge her against the standard of her own best work must be very strong. No doubt time will eventually tell whether the judges’ decision in this ease needs reconsideration.

One critic, Margaret Mackey, has already published a plea for reconsideration of another book of Mahy’s, the difficult Dangerous Spaces. On re-reading this book she found that it had a lot more to offer than she had thought after her first reading. Mackey’s anxiety is that first readings of a challenging new book can result in a real failure to do it justice. This is especially likely, of course, if an author has changed ground or shifted focus and so does not meet established expectations. I believe Mahy’s writing may be in the process of changing, and that readers are being put off. I also believe, like Mackey, that it is worth persevering beyond a first reading.

To recognise what The Other Side of Silence is doing, the reader needs to acknowledge that the book makes a series of bows to earlier Margaret Mahy books. Otherwise, the opening may be experienced as stale – my initial reaction was that Mahy had run out of ideas and was starting to recycle material: The “old Credence house” in The Other Side of Silence looks very like Janua Caeli, the mysterious old tree-ringed house standing lonely in a new subdivision in The Changeover. The large, talkative, smart and lively family of Rappers echoes The Tricksters and the house that’s always under repair or needing building was in Dangerous Spaces. Cigarette smoking, as a sign of ambitious desires in a conventional-seeming woman, was in The Catalogue of the Universe and so was the character of the colourful, over-life-size older daughter. (In fact, she was in Tricksters as well.) And when, in The Other Side of Silence, Miss Credence stalks the garden in her black hat and cloak, the reader is led to reflect on earlier Mahy stories for smaller people – the Witch in the Cherry Tree, for starters – while the mother, Annie, in The Other Side of Silence recalls the mother who made up stories in The Lion in the Meadow. Other fairly gratuitous self-references have been thrown in as well – to pirates, for instance, once a favourite Mahy theme for younger readers, and to memory (as in Memory). The reader is invited into a delusion that Mahy has started to repeat herself, that she’s rehashing old themes: in short, that she’s lost the old magic.

My first point is that in being invited so to think, the reader is as securely in the grip of the old witch as ever. The intentions of this book are self-reflective, even backwards-looking, in many ways. A second, and related, point is that this book goes further into a pattern – already recognisable in earlier books for older children – of play with a Christchurch setting, play with things that might be known to readers (or guessed by them) about Mahy’s own life story. Ideas are raised about famous mothers; mothers who wield power through words, stories, and books; evasive or missing fathers; daughters who want to be special or different; mothers who lovingly keep their daughters in cages; and mothers’ memories of younger selves – those heavenly creatures who once wanted so much to fly like birds.

The method is allusive, dense and indirect. As a story the book is gripping enough in itself, but it’s also richly interlaced with material from other sources, as well as from elsewhere in Mahy. The Mowgli stories (mothers who run like wolves?) and various fairy tales are especially important. But reference to New Zealand, and especially to Christchurch, may be even more important. It is necessary to recognise this in justice to Mahy who has annoyed some New Zealand readers in the past by choosing symbols with a mainly literary, and therefore international, appeal – witches, pirates, crocodiles. She has seemed determined to avoid too-uniquely New Zealand settings and images. And I have some sympathy with those who get annoyed. If an English critic, David Gooderham, can write of The Changeover that “bronzed Australian Laura makes a witch of herself”, perhaps Mahy’s customary vagueness, as well as a very understandable English vagueness about ex-colonies, is to blame. Yet landscapes and locations can occupy more important, and more precise, places in Mahy’s books than is always recognised. So the recent effort by the Canterbury Museum to put Underrunners into place on Banks Peninsula is particularly to be welcomed.

The Other Side of Silence, however, does not have another Lyttelton Harbour setting. It clearly belongs in a re-imagined Christchurch, probably in Fendalton (called Benallan) where, in “real life”, more than one old house still stands proudly and secretly hidden in mature trees and surrounded by newer yuppie residences. There’s one prime candidate I can think of, just off Memorial Avenue and (like the Credence house) only ten minutes’ walk from the university, with a sprinkling of rambling rose in its high hedges very like Janua Caeli’s. Much is made of the difference between “real life” and “true life” in this book. Many a real life Christchurch house might very easily be suggested to the reader by Mahy’s true-life Credence house.

The family of Rappers, Miss Credence’s neighbours, refer to her mysterious house as “Squintum’s House”. The family joke is a reference not just to Miss Credence’s two (significantly) differently directed eyes: nor to the old fairy tale about Mr Fox that Hero – our hero – explains to us readers. In real-life Christchurch anyone in the world of children’s literature who talks about Squintum’s House is inevitably referring to Gavin Bishop’s marvellously illustrated version of Mr Fox: a book firmly located by its artwork in a contemporary Christchurch setting. Mahy has therefore used indirect and playful ways of locating her story without excluding the non-local reader, as more local allusions are bound to do. Christchurch readers might pick up other references, too, for instance to the family of children who were found living there not so long ago, imprisoned by their own parents, and incapable of speech.

Mahy’s Hero also does not talk. Her condition (aphasia voluntaria, choosing not to speak) is a bold choice of theme when another magician across the Tasman, John Marsden, already dealt with it in his acclaimed first book in 1986, So Much to Tell You. But what is life if we can’t take on the Aussies, preferably at their own games? Hero’s silence is comprehensible within the book as a response to a vociferous competitive family. In particular, silence is self-protection from the rivalrous quarrel between the two dominating family members, mother Annie and eldest daughter Ginevra. Annie is a child psychologist who made her name and fame partly by writing about her own two gifted children, Athol and Ginevra. In a moment of self-discovery towards the end of the book, Hero announces – of course she does eventually begin to talk – that “Not talking’s my way of being famous”. Mahy is debating whether choosing silence might be only the flip side of choosing words, and showing that both choices can be ways to get power over others. She’s aware that fame brings power in all contexts, including in one’s family, inevitably, and in one’s city.

The book closes on a very ambivalent note. To give away one of its secrets, brother Athol finally reveals that he’s not been working on his thesis all these years but has instead turned himself into the scriptwriter of a successful Auckland TV soap – Pharazyn Towers. The series is based on a run-of-the-mill evil businesswoman ruining the chances of her own beautiful sweet-natured daughter. Silent Hero is evidently another daughter-victim (the main theme of the book). Hero has begun to believe – partly from watching her mother Annie and partly from learning the story of Miss Credence and her famous father – that fame is always something which the famous steal from those around them. “If things were fair, all stories would be anonymous,” Hero concludes, as she decides, although we don’t know with how much finality, not to be a famous writer.

Mahy would probably prefer it that all stories were indeed anonymous, so that people would not read her books (as I’ve just read this one) with an eye to her private and professional life and how they might be being mythologised in a book. But self-reference and a local setting both direct the reader towards precisely this kind of reading. Yet Mahy is also pointing out, modestly, that a story is always a gift – partly from “real life”, partly from the literary and dream worlds of “true life”. It is not something she creates single-handed. She is merely the noisy one, it seems, among other gifted children who chose, as this book hints, not to lift up public voices and break their private silence.

We wouldn’t like her so much if she weren’t so modest, if she didn’t feel she had to apologise for being so famous. This book, I hope, will make her more so. It may be less compelling than some of her earlier books for young adults or older children precisely to the extent that it is more interesting as a mother’s, and a mature artist’s, reflection on a noisy life’s work.

Rose Lovell-Smith teaches English at the Tamaki Campus of the University of Auckland.

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Posted in Fiction, Literature, Review, Young adults
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