Half-baked and home-cooked, Jane Westaway

having words with you
Sarah Quigley
Penguin Books, $24.95
ISBN 0 14027376 X

In a fishbone church
Catherine Chidgey
Victoria University Press, $24.95
ISBN 0 86473335 6

You can’t consider two first books by young women writers without being reminded that publishing is, first and foremost, a commercial enterprise, and that a publisher bringing out a first book by someone young and female is making a canny marketing decision.

Women dominate New Zealand literary fiction. That’s no slight to Gee, Marshall and others whose new books almost always make at least a brief appearance on best-seller lists. In fact, it’s a measure of just how well they’re doing in a market in which, by and large, women’s tastes rule. Women tend to buy the books, work unpaid for literary events and attend them, join book groups and writing classes, and talk about the latest novel over lunch. Not surprisingly we like books about women like us, written by women like us. And also not surprisingly – especially since the success here and overseas of Emily Perkins, Kirsty Gunn and Barbara Else – publishers know it.

Then there’s what Perkins or Sarah Quigley might call “the young talent thing”. Editors and feature writers, TV and radio producers, love the idea of this bursting onto the literary scene like a comet, and publishers know there’s a direct relationship between columns and minutes of media coverage and copies over the counter. I’m not turning my nose up: writers are as keen as publishers for their books to sell, sometimes – infuriatingly – keener. Neither is it a bad idea to recruit a new generation to the reading habit by making books look hip.

The real problem with the media romance with young talent is that it reinforces the popular myth of fiction as the outcome of inspiration rather than effort, of writers who didn’t need to learn the craft because they possess this mysterious quality which does the work for them.

Sarah Quigley began writing fiction several years ago as an antidote to a PhD thesis. Many of the stories in having words with you have been published in anthologies and literary journals, and won or been placed in competitions here and overseas. I’d be surprised, though, if she’d never received a rejection slip. Catherine Chidgey began In a fishbone church on an undergraduate creative writing course more than three years ago, and finished it over a two-year MA course – a long haul. These two haven’t just tapped into their talent and watched it flow like oil, they’ve put in the work.

It’s not hard to see why Quigley’s work catches the eye of judges. In the grim world of competition fiction with its litany of abortion, suicide, abuse, domestic upheaval and bad sex, her word play would be a breath of fresh air and the petty preoccupations of her insecure twenty-somethings a blessed relief. Unfortunately, 14 stories along these lines don’t add up to a successful collection. The blurb claims the stories are “in-your-face”, that they’ll “stalk you from the moment you turn your back.” In fact, the opposite is true: before long the stories merge into one, becoming hard to recall individually, and are not so much in-your-face as in the writer’s head.

Quigley’s use of language becomes, by the bookful, a relentless exploitation yielding prose that shouts, “Look at me”. Before long you feel as if you’ve spent too much time with someone who can’t stop wisecracking. Sometimes she’s genuinely insightful and therefore genuinely amusing. (“There’s always a letter. Wherever there are two girls and a boy or two boys and a girl, there has to be a letter.”) Often, though, her wordplay feels strained and gimmicky. She likes startling the reader with the casually gruesome (“He kept his ex-wife in a teapot above the stove”), and by upsetting preconceptions (“She arrived at my door with a box of chocolates and a bunch of grievances”). This sort of thing might be great seasoning but isn’t a balanced meal.

Her better stories are those where language is more in the service of the story rather than its raison d’être. In “Broken Rhythms”, 12-year-old Cam is off to the beach with her parents and beautiful 15-year-old Annette. A perfect day will, she hopes, seal their friendship. Annette’s poise and maturity rise above banal matters like hunger, and she keeps cool in the back of the car while Cam and her mother burn up in the heat. Quigley nicely paves the way for a denouement in which, from the clifftop, Cam sees her father and Annette locked in each other’s arms. I didn’t exactly feel Cam’s double betrayal, but I appreciated it. Stripped of its customary cleverness, Quigley’s prose in this story is sometimes clumsy, but that’s preferable to heartlessness.

In “It’s all happening beautifully”, neurotic Beverly frets about her bra cutting off her circulation, Fraser’s dangerously slow breathing, the strain on his heart from sleeping on his left side, the potentially difficult breakfast situation – and all in just the first couple of pages. She’s so weighed down with responsibility she can barely function: not so much a character as a dreadful state of mind. Beverly is a caricature, and the reader is unlikely to care what becomes of her.

In “This is not a dress rehearsal”, Katrina tells her London boyfriend she’s going home to New Zealand, and there’s a nice moment when a double-decker bus pulls up outside the flat offering its passengers a clear view of their row. The story is about the hell of being a New Zealander in London, the hell of international travel, and the hell of a family home-coming. It’s a good idea, but Quigley is so determined to clock up one-liners, she deprives it of any felt connection with the world.

Many of the stories OD on wordplay, prompting the reader to suspect the writer doesn’t care what she’s writing about, only that she is writing, and having more fun than they are. I can’t help feeling Quigley has been published in book form too soon, and that the publisher knows it. The slim volume has an air of desperation, as if everyone’s gritting their teeth in the hope of producing their own Emily Perkins. Story titles are spread across two pages and printed (often illegibly) against a grainy photographic image. Each paragraph of every story is set off artily from its neighbours by double spacing, padding out what are often very slight pieces.

Quigley invites comparison with Perkins because both write almost exclusively of young adults in situations even the protagonists recognise as clichés – trying to get a boyfriend, trying to get over a boyfriend, trying to get rid of a boyfriend, overseas experience, getting over overseas experience, drinking, smoking, partying, counselling, trying to find out what you want to do and be. But that’s where the similarity ends. Quigley displays none of Perkin’s skill with dialogue and voice, nor the staying power for longer, more satisfying stories.

The bad news for Penguin is that not only do VUP have Perkins, they now also have Chidgey. Chidgey is conspicuously not one of these young adult writers. She casts her net way beyond post-adolescent angst, tackling old men, teenage girls and everyone in between, and exploring the subtle push-pull of family life. In a fishbone church has the feel of grown-up fiction.

The novel portrays several decades of Stilton family life through the eyes of middle-aged Gene, wife Etta, father Clifford, and daughters Bridget and Christina. It opens on Gene’s eulogy at Clifford’s funeral and closes with Gene’s death. In between the girls grow up and away, and Gene and Etta grow old. Many first novels deal with family life; not many do so with the light-handed humour and affection of In a fishbone church.

Immediately following the funeral Gene’s mother passes on several supermarket bags full of her husband’s diaries. He stuffs them into a hall cupboard but they refuse to stay put, their insistent voice coming to him in the night, over the telephone, into his office. And before long, Clifford gets a whole chapter to himself – extracts from his 1950s diaries.

The character of Clifford, the family butcher, is intensified by letters and press clippings, and looms over the novel. He is its backbone, mainly because of the diaries’ wonderful authenticity which allows his innocent egotism to reveal his flaws. And there are plenty. He’s obsessed with pulse and bowel motions. He’s blindly misogynistic, recording stingy gifts to his wife of money, household appliances and the rare cup of tea in bed, and disregarding her “weepy” spells in spite of his regularly noted appointments with Dolly, Marsha and Rae.

He’s a keen rock collector, keen too to pass on his know-how in this as in everything to his young son, yet blithely robbing him of credit for an important find. Later, he also robs Gene of his ambition to be a journalist by bullying him – albeit lovingly – into the building trade. Clifford is a ruthless hunter, shooting and hooking anything that moves, and on a good day killing 100 swans. This merciless slaughter contrasts nicely with the last scene of the novel – Gene, on holiday with his young family at Taupo hooking a rainbow trout; the little girls beg him not to kill it, to let it go, and he does.

There’s no shortage of potential conflict and tension in the Stilton family. There’s Clifford and the legacy he leaves his son, the sibling rivalry between Bridget and Christina, and the problem for Etta the devout Catholic to make – against her dreadful mother’s wishes – a life with non-Catholic Gene. These issues rarely surface, let alone get confronted. The kind of acceptance which veers close to repression is as common in families as is outright melodrama, and has the ring of truth. Yet as the novel progressed, I began to look forward to overt conflict, the crisis and the turning point – precipitated, perhaps, by Clifford’s carrying on with women or the fact that Christina is adopted.

None came, and I finished In a fishbone church feeling it added up to less than the sum of its accomplished parts. It reads as linked short stories rather than as an organic whole. The Stiltons and their over-lapping experiences of each other provide the only continuity, and given the lack of narrative drive, these eventually come to feel rather random.

Other flaws spring from this: the chapter on Etta’s childhood seems superfluous, nothing that happened later convinced me we needed it; Etta’s character didn’t live for me until the final chapters when she’s fussing around her dying husband and visiting daughters; grown-up Bridget and Christina weren’t distinctive enough from each other, and their scene-shifts to Berlin and Sydney came as a shock, cutting the slender thread spun from a sense of place and having a faint been-there-done-that flavour. Characters fail to grow (or regress) over the course of the novel, and there’s never enough at stake for any of them. There are loose ends too. Hints about Clifford’s carrying on were never confirmed or denied; and even after two readings I couldn’t be certain if this was why his wife angrily confiscated the 1955 diary.

That said, I look forward to Chidgey’s second novel. I like her concerns, her thoughtfulness and insight, her sense of humour and her prose. The writing of In a fishbone church is beautifully lucid, making sparing use of images, never showing off. Style that gets between writer and reader is merely poor writing. Chidgey has plenty of style, it’s just that it’s classy enough not to draw attention to itself, to allow humour to arise out of character and situation, rather than from the milking of words.

In a fishbone church is an endearing fiction with a full home-cooked flavour. Its New Zealandness isn’t fudged, apologised for or paraded. Due to be published by Picador in the UK, it looks – in spite of its faults – like work ready to take its place on an international stage, to illuminate what one British reviewer of Barbara Else dubbed, “that strange country halfway between Croydon and California”.

Jane Westaway is a Wellington writer and reviewer.

Catherine Chidgey’s In a fishbone church won the Hubert Church award for the best first work of fiction at the 1998 Montana New Zealand book awards.

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