Domestic and dystopian, Elizabeth Crayford

The House Within
Fiona Kidman
Vintage $29.95
ISBN 1 86941 316 4

Marilyn Duckworth
Vintage $29.95
ISBN 1 86941 329 6

In the week this review was written (mid-December 1997), Wellingtonians were invited to hear Lois Daish and Fiona Kidman discuss “fantasies, friendship, food and the finer things of life”, an event sponsored by the New Zealand Book Council. Daish even worked Kidman’s latest novel into her fortnightly food column in the Listener that week, describing the central charades, the sometime food writer Bethany Dixon, as one of Kidman’s “most fascinating characters”. Great publicity for any novelist trying to broaden their readership, given New Zealand’s enduring love affair with the recipe book, and the longevity of the Listener food column.

Bethany Dixon first appeared in a short story published in Landfall in 1972; since then she has cropped up in three short story collections, most prominently in the eponymous Mrs Dixon and Friend (1982). This is clearly a character who won’t let the author go. For Daish and probably many others whose followed Kidman’s writing over the past 25 years, a novel (or “linked short stories” as Daish calls them) that fills in the background to Bethany’s marriages promises to be a real treat – like a long chat with an old friend: gossipy, nostalgic, therapeutic, fun.

As a new-comer to this character (but not to Kidman’s work) I read The House Within as a novel, a “discontinuous narrative” if you like, although events are presented pretty much chronologically, narrative voices change and wheel back on themselves. Thus the book opens with the voice of Bethany’s younger son, Stephen, describing the death of his brother, then alternates between Bethany’s voice and that of her first husband, Peter, who intermittently visits Bethany from Australia. The longest section of the book, “The Bethany Chronicles”, takes the reader back to the late 1950s, when Bethany first met Peter, and then fills in the missing bits up to the present day, including the marriages of her children and step-children, a mob of grandchildren and, finally, unexpected success and national acclaim as a food writer.

This is vintage Kidman: a story that was at least twenty-five years in the making, and which had its inception seven years before her first novel, A Breed of Women (1979), was published. Bethany lives most of her life in the small central North Island town where she was born: as with her first novel, Kidman’s territory is clearly staked out – she tackles the domestic and provincial headland of New Zealand, showing us the way we were and the way we are – a nation where every third marriage is likely to end in divorce and where the fall-out results in a new way of looking at families. As Anne French says in the poem “All you may depend on” that prefaces this book, “At heart it is not without / complications, which is why / there are several houses and children / and any number of marriages.”

The novel ends on an ambiguous note. After winning $5000 for Bethany Dixon’s Traditional Cooking in the Guild of Food Writers competition, Bethany (now aged 57 and divorced from her third husband) is invited by his brother Sam to join him on a world tour; he has cancer and isn’t after a sexual relationship, just “something that would be good for both of us”, to which Bethany replies, “I think it’s a marvellous idea”.

Bethany tells us that Sam is “a man I hardly know”, and the introduction of yet another new character in the last chapter is perhaps questionable. As she talks with him, a cat suckles her kittens in the courtyard outside; on the last page of the novel the cat finally ditches the kittens which hardly “notice her absence”. It’s a clunky metaphor for Beth’s final liberation from her own children, even as she contemplates a new and inevitably painful relationship. Is Kidman inviting us to admire Bethany’s journey from door-mat to independence, or is this another example of an impetuous woman whose generosity outweighs her commonsense?

OK, so this is realist fiction, and real life doesn’t label us heroes, heroines or villains, or give us tidy, decisive conclusions. However, an updated version of this novel could well appear in another 25 years, still incomplete, still admitting new characters, still inconclusive in terms of plot and motivation, still expertly charting the domestic waters. I guess I prefer something that ends with a bang, rather than something that is . . . let’s face it, too much like life. Kidman admits as much when Bethany contemplates leaving her third husband:

As a woman who reads novels, she is sometimes depressed by the erudite achievements of their central characters, she knows that women in the best fiction are no longer described as heroines, but they still have that element about them, because she sees that the people who write the books . . . feel the need to establish their characters as survivors, ultimate achievers. What would they make of her?

A survivor and an achiever, perhaps, but are the old-fashioned recipes – lemon curd, nasturtium-seed capers – enough of an act of self-realisation? Bethany only discovers her talent for teaching and writing about food 40 pages from the end. Otherwise, as the title implies, this is not a novel that relies on the big, dramatic set-piece; chapters (stories) are built around everyday events: school prize-giving, a trip to the gynaecologist, buying a dress. Whatever impetus the book has comes from within, as Bethany and Peter orbit each other and their children, struggling with a love that never quite dies, trawling the domestic waters while almost imperceptibly New Zealand pushes into the nineties around them.

Marilyn Duckworth has an even longer track record than Fiona Kidman: the first of her 13 novels, A Gap in the Spectrum, was published in 1959. Her settings tend to be more urban than Kidman’s: she charts the lives of those inner city Wellington suburbs – Thorndon, Mt Victoria, Kilbirnie – in the same way that Kidman anatomises small town New Zealand, lifting the counterpane on what’s been swept under the national bed.

That Studmuffin opens in Auckland and then moves offshore announces this novel as new territory for Duckworth. (A”studmuffin”, by the way, is the male equivalent of “cheesecake” – aka tomboy, sex object.) More remarkable than the literal geographic switch, though, is this novel’s focus on the geography of the mind and the contours of language; more allegory than realism, it draws heavily on Alice in Wonderland, creating a parallel universe which may be all hallucination.

Alice, 32, separated from her husband after the death of their daughter, works with Clifton Shilling, both high-flyers with an investment and property development company, both good at a job that requires them to learn a new vocabulary, “a spoken language limping after dictionary definitions but in the work place tripping faster and faster”. Alice is attracted to the albino Shilling (white rabbit – geddit?), but they don’t consummate their relationship until Shilling “borrows” a friend’s boat and, outboard turned off, they are afloat under a blue Pacific sky.

Something happens at the point of orgasm (no rational explanation is given) and the couple comes to on an island from which they can see no trace of Auckland or any other identifiable landmark. The island is inhabited by the remnants of a 1960s commune whose leader, Powell – Here on Unspeak Island I, Powell, am the organising principal – has coerced his followers into abandoning spoken and written language to the extent that children born there have no language at all.

Apparently self-sufficient, the island community grows its own vegetables, makes its own candles, catches fish, rejoices in the chance stranding of a whale, eats goat’s-milk butter. Shilling and Alice are absorbed into the community, and soon discover that the language Powell tries to deny flourishes in an underground cell. Separated from Alice, Shilling is forced to work on the island’s only electric generator buried deep within a warren of tunnels at the heart of the island. When he discovers the whereabouts of the lost outboard motor, they finally make their escape, taking with them a young couple from the island. The novel ends with Shilling rowing “toward Auckland, city of sails, city of computers, spreadsheets, e-mail, newspapers, multiplying words”.

An allegory invites and defies interpretation. On a personal level, Alice’s physical attraction to Shilling (the unlikely studmuffin of the title) deepens into love as they are thrown on their own resources and learn to value their ability to communicate. Meanwhile, Alice’s sister Rosie writes increasingly drug-crazed letters from London, begging money for heroin, hallucinating that Alice is lost on an island beyond language. Sinister alcoholic Powell’s interior monologues punctuate the Crusoe-esque second half of the novel – a cross between Bert Potter, Hopeful Christian and Charles Manson, yes a sixties dream gone wrong. And yet there are moments on the island when Alice is as happy as she’s ever been, and on their return to Auckland she is buoyed up by the hope that she is pregnant again.

Does it all coalesce? Is it meant to? “There is no thought without words”, reflects Shilling as he encounters a “zombie-eyed waif” on their first morning on the island. In the beginning was the word, but ours is a new beginning, declaims Powell. Big ideas, big questions – I get the feeling that after nearly 40 years of predominantly realist fiction, Duckworth has taken a bold but shaky first step in a new direction. She creates a dystopia to which the rest of us have already come uncomfortably close – consider Centerpoint, or Waco, or North Korea for that matter – taking the reader through the looking glass (or the wardrobe, or the stargate, depending on your fictional touchstones) to show us what we could become. In the process, some pretty heavy philosophical issues glance off the reader – the relationship between thought and language, the way in which language structures reality – meanwhile creating a convincingly tangible “other world”, menacing, grim, but also at times surprisingly tranquil.

These two novels share a couple of. thematic traits. Bethany’s first child dies in chapter one, an adolescent on his way to Scouts; Alice’s daughter drowns as a young child. Beneath the surface textures of domestic/dystopian detail, both novels address the question of just how, as a mother, you go on living after the death of your child. Life goes on, but a refrain, a threnody, weaves through each book, questioning what is of value, what endures, after such appalling loss.

Both Bethany and Alice have close but difficult relationships with an absent only sister. Bethany’s disappears mysteriously halfway through the book, Alice’s moves in and out of focus in an inevitably one-sided correspondence from a seedy London squat. Bethany drifts from relationship to relationship, finally agreeing to a relative stranger’s proposal; Alice and Shilling, adrift on the Hauraki Gulf, catapult into Never-Never Land on a wave of lust and learn love on the way back. It’s almost as though women make their relationships with men in the absence of their children and siblings.

Take any two books and you’ll find parallels if you want . . . but these are also books of their time. If poet Michael Jackson can write history that is also an autobiography, if Elizabeth Knox can write a novel that is also both biography and autobiography, then Kidman can reassemble 25 years’ worth of sketches into a novel that is also (in a limited way) a recipe book, and Duckworth can write an apocalyptic vision complete with Anti-Christ, full of intertextual allusion and a Saussurian tilt at the relationship between language, meaning and reality.

Elizabeth Crayford is a Wellington reviewer and Secretary of the New Zealand Poetry Society.

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