Victoria University Press
ISBN 0 86473 336 4
The final in the trilogy of Elizabeth Knox’s autobiographical novellas – the other two being Paremata and Pomare – Tawa is set in 1973, when Lex Keene is 13, her sisters Jo and Steph 16 and 10. Lex’s intelligence is polished as bright as in the previous books, but its clear surety has been muddied, confused by an invasion of responsibility, of older-sisterliness. Ten-year-old Steph is being “interfered with“ by old Critchlow, who lives down the street. It is the knowledge of this, coupled with Lex’s inability to stop Steph from going back to the old man, that is filling Lex with Blakeian turmoil.
Of all the novellas, I found this the most penetrating exploration of innocence into experience. Brewing below the surface of all the currents of apparently random story are secrets, lies, illusions. Jo, for example, is fascinated – almost obsessed – with the dramatic underground life of her homosexual friend Ian, and hangs on each of his casual sexual confidences. Lex’s friend Grace lives with a hardly spoken-of absence – her older sister Justine discovered the fast track to an adult life of sex, drugs and hippiedom, disappearing to Australia, not heard of since. Frank Keene, the girls’ father, supports Bill Sutch, debates whether he really did pass on information to the Russians or not. Or was there a deeper, more personal motivation behind the arrest? “Oh. More creepy sex secrets,” says Lex, wearily.
And even Lex’s happy secret, her gravity-defying ability to fly through the air at the high jump, is under threat from adult analysis. She should adopt the Fosbury Flop, not the scissors jump; she shouldn’t be good at it anyway, it doesn’t make sense, she’d simply temporarily outgrown her weight. Magical gifts, the inexplicable bounty of childhood, can no longer remain unchallenged.
Steph’s compulsion, her “habit”, her attachment to Critchlow and his “horrible husbandry” serves as the central focus of the story. Outraged, fearful, rocked by Steph’s apparent willingness to comply with him, Lex confides in her friend Grace and they conjure up some childish terrorism. It is a limp attempt – a threatening letter and a banner – and they are quickly outplayed by the despicable Critchlow. Only when all else fails, does Lex force herself to be “sensible”, to make Steph tell their mother.
For there is something else, a niggling discomfort behind Lex’s “sensible” ministrations to Steph. Lex has a piece of knowledge that worms away at her, asking whether, in one small but vital way, she and Jo began this whole series of events, set off an idea in Critchlow’s mind that led him eventually to Steph. Not responsible for it, but somehow also part of it, of the cause and effect. And it is this knowledge, along with Lex’s loyalty to – or is it shame for? – Steph, that holds her back from telling:
It was all about knowledge – forbidden fruit, like the knowledge of Original Sin – facts and moments culminating in something that happened, something unrepeatable and as purely circumstantial as the best height that Lex could leap. It had nothing to do with the hypocrisy of society. It was all circumstances and secrets.
And now Lex is questioning the very heart of her beliefs, of her self. Is it knowledge, she asks her father, not sex, that is the sin? Because if so, Lex Keene is neck-deep in sin, in complicity. Her father assures her that even for the religious, of which he is not one, it was sex God didn’t want Adam and Eve to know about: “He was as worried about the fruit as the eating.”
But that is not altogether satisfying, in absolving Lex; and one suspects that fact won’t be lost on Lex either. For the knowledge of the fruit changes everything. And in the meantime Lex has seen “The world rolled out like a red carpet before her, blazing like a long cut filling with blood.”
Despite its lucid prose and sensuous imagery, this is obviously not the endless-hot-summers-by-the-sea sort of childhood memory story. This is the territory of adolescence, beyond the common zone, where the environment is dangerous and mysterious and the stakes are high. Jo could end up like Justine, lost to all who knew her, or Ian’s Catholic lover Daniel, accidentally “falling” in front of a truck. And then there’s Steph. The adult world encroaches as the edges fall away. But it’s not simply a matter of letting the adult world in. These kids are in pursuit of experience – they are complicit in their own corruption. That’s where the interest in this story lies for me. There are complications, complexities to be teased out, individual responsibilities to answer to. Steph, probably to the horror of the politically correct, is going back to Critchlow because she wants something from him – maybe just attention, maybe a taste of that apple in the garden.
Knox writes about the large and significant within the small, a sort of opposite of Russian dolls – her stories unfold from the almost incidental to the monumental, and can concertina back again to the backyard minutiae of memory. She revels in smells and tastes, and the whole trilogy seems suspended in a golden caramel-like light – in fact the numerous images of caramel, toffee and gold are worth noting. Knox’s prose is sleek, sophisticated, beautifully cambered. Lex’s voice is keen yet delicately searching, and her thought processes mostly intriguing and credible.
Occasionally the girls can sound rather more like the author, rather too perspicacious for their age. These characters are precocious of course: they understand quite sophisticated concepts and psychology, and can actually articulate them (“I guess adults expect to be humoured. That’s how they treat each other. That’s what they’re used to”), although they can also think a poison-pen letter decorated with a flaming skull will scare off Critchlow. Their parents are “members of what in any other country might be termed the intelligentsia. But intellectuals, like snakes, weren’t native to New Zealand.” I felt Knox got a little side-tracked now and then, displaying their cleverness, and those moments have the least fluency. Lex’s deconstruction of a Ray Bradbury story for the remedial reading teacher, her outrage at having been tricked into sitting – of all things – an IQ test, or to have been considered backward because the teacher couldn’t read her writing – have the tang of events not forgiven. Being clever is important. Jo has an “officially gifted mind” and Lex is only just beginning to realise that cleverness might be what she suffers from:
Is this how it felt? This bloated, pecked, pulled-apart, blown-away sensation of the vividness of things.
And yet Lex, being clever, knows to question her cleverness. How, after all, does it help her deal with Steph? And with knowledge, of course, there’s no going back. Even Jo, who until recently wouldn’t have hesitated to run out in the dark after knowledge or adventure, is beginning to show signs of a sort of timidity, a “tepid inertia” that Lex attributes to the effects of adolescence – and perhaps, experience.
My only reservation was that I found the linking of these themes with those of the Bill Sutch affair, and later Jim Baxter’s life, contrived: a few heavy-handed conversations on “issues” that connect the stories could have done with being more lightly sketched for my taste; the reader should have been left to feel the reverberations and make of them what they will.
The spine of the story though – the sinuous, slightly menacing narrative of Lex, and Steph, and to a lesser extent of Jo – is as honestly rendered as in the first two novellas. Knox, as always, manages to convey the complex with ease and elegance, even fullness Her images are charged with life (stars “seethe”; limbs are tanned like “a good strong ceramic glaze”, the sun “a bright burr caught in the trees”), and her characters think and care and regard the world with eyes, ears, nostrils and minds that record the familiar but never see it as in the slightest commonplace.
Paula Boock is a Dunedin writer. In April she won both the senior fiction category and the supreme prize of the New Zealand Post Children’s Book of the Year contest for her novel Dare, Truth or Promise.