Labouring the point, Marilyn Waring

Tasting Salt
Stephanie Dowrick
Penguin, $34.95
ISBN 0 670 87359 4

Forgiveness and Other Acts of Love – Finding true value in your life
Stephanie Dowrick
Penguin, $34.95
ISBN 0 670 87360 8

Some transparency is called for first on my part, to give some context to my comments on Stephanie Dowrick’s 1997 publications. I never read her novel Running Backwards Over Sand. I have never read Intimacy and Solitude. More pointedly, I have never read a therapeutic self-help book, so I have no basis or standard for comparison in the genre.

To continue the transparency, and since it seems to me there was an inevitable influence, the novel I had finished immediately before accepting delivery of the Dowrick oeuvre was Ann-Marie MacDonalds Fall on Your Knees, one of the most riveting reads of my lifetime.

I like about as much dialogue as we find in Pinter and Atwood, and the restraint and tension of the characters played by Anthony Hopkins in the movie of The Remains of the Day. I like my fictional politics multi-textured and somewhat mysterious, so that in, say, Woolf or Frame so much is possible in the suggestion, and nothing is clear. I like clever metaphors, and not many adjectives, the sense of it, not the facile detail. This is not the style of Stephanie Dowrick, so the question was to be whether or not we would find an accommodation.

In Tasting Salt, Cordelia has just lost her husband George. She is a generation older than Laurie, the mother of two wilful and energetic children whose gay father lives nearby with his partner. The two women are individually on voyages of the search for self, while cautiously growing an intimate friendship, trust and love.

It is the writing style that interests me when the story does not carry me away. Dowrick begins promisingly enough in the first few chapters when she tells of the days immediately before and after the death of George after 40 years of marriage to Cordelia. Yet the first lines bothered me: “I pick up a penguin. Six inches tall, it is chiselled from a piece of solid crystal. It is heavy, cool, kitsch, and yet succeeds well enough in its likeness to its feathered real life model to make me smile.”

Am I a hopeless cynic as a reader, I ask myself? The moment I read those lines, I think, “signpost to some metaphor about penguins; probably ice and Antarctica ahead: Watch for those, they will be meaningful, and if this is a heavy-duty metaphor, I don’t need all those adjectives.”

There are lots more adjectives as I move along, and lots more detail than this reader can possibly think is necessary. Walls are a dusky turquoise, looking many layers thick; door- and window-frames are sharp Granny Smith green; and “[t]all, shapely skirting boards are rich yellow. Draped, full-length curtains in navy and white narrow stripes hang beside two long windows.” Or: “Birds sit and shit in black and white on the glass roof of the studio and then, freer, swoop down to the green untidy grass beneath the spreading trees to catch their early worms.” Or: “The black cat from next door looked down on us with considerable disdain from the high brick wall that separates me from my neighbour.” And of a character we never meet:

Now in her fifties and the veteran of several financially advantageous marriages, Luciana is well known for the rococo hats in which she is photographed for whatever passes for the weekend social pages these days. Small, thin, fast-moving, with blackcurrant eyes and a raspberry mouth, she is obviously shrewd and perhaps kind, as well as relentlessly social.

Such narrative style is relentlessly sustained. At each succeeding one I am beginning to say out loud, “Do I care?” There’s no indication from the characters that it makes a bit of difference whether the cat sits or the bird shits or Luciana wears a hat; and I lose patience.

Now, is this what I am supposed to do as a reader? There’s an early moment when George, who worked on missions in the “developing world”, is asked about the UN’s performance in Botswana by an earnest friend. He begins an earnest answer, and Cordelia, who is our narrator at the time, leaves the room because “I am not nearly as patient, and in less than a minute had heard enough.” Much later, when George has been dead for nearly a year, and we are with Cordelia’s stream of consciousness, and this reader was beginning to think Cordelia is really losing the plot, she comments, “I must be crazy to think of that now”. And most telling of all, when Cordelia delivers herself of a confused soliloquy to Laurie about a tree and whether a part can represent a whole and whether you can see the whole and the parts at the same time, she asks her friend: “Oh God, did I bore you to death? ‘Not at all,’ lies Laurie smoothly.”

Are these clues that give me permission to feel impatient, or bored, or confused? Why would a writer intentionally do that? Are these deliberate devices (as the dream sequences are, and aren’t they a bit passé these days?), or unintended unconscious coincidences?

There are metaphors that are laboured, and the ice and penguins were just the beginning. So many of them are set up, and then not delivered with any vibrant consistency. They don’t get inside me and create intrigue and meaning. Whether its George’s collection of Tagore, or Petra, the gardener with a disability, or the brief appearance of Gwen John via a postcard of Eve from an old friend in Cairo, there’s something remote about them all. However, there is nothing remote about Laurie, and her children Rhea and Gregory, and Dowrick’s writing whenever these characters are present is on a different plane. There is an ease in style, which generally means the most writing effort was expended on these parts of the work. I was not bored by these people.

They have a presence on the page that never seems laboured or contrived. The tension and atmosphere evoked in the sodomised rape of Laurie by the children’s father, and the descriptions of the days which followed his departure from the household are first-class sequences.

But I feel detached from Cordelia. Hers is a quest for freedom. Until she enunciates this late in the book, we have had only one direct reference to the concept. An old friend, Bronwyn, is telling Cordelia of time spent as a young woman with relatives on a farm in Rhodesia. Young black women worked as servants in the household. Bronwyn says:

inside those women was a greater freedom than I had been allowed to imagine. Or a greater sense of legitimacy. Their femaleness was their core . . . They were servants, badly paid, shockingly housed, having to do dreary work for white racists occupying and changing their country. And probably putting up with crap from their men when they got home. Yet I believed I was not freer than they. Not then anyway.

Am I just too politically correct? This unchallenged statement was still resonant for me a hundred pages later when Cordelia wished for freedom. It would influence my response to the character. I wondered too what Cordelia’s age and her grief might have to do with the remoteness between Cordelia and me. An acknowledgement to one of Dowrick’s friends, Barbara Manning Ward, who died in 1997, aged 77, is made at the front of the novel, crediting her with being the inspiration for Cordelia’s story. I assembled in my mind my mother, my great-aunts, the women I know or have known of this age to assist our connection. I thought of May Sarton and Doris Grumbach’s later writing. Nothing changed. Perhaps I would find my way through to her in Forgiveness and Other Acts of Love.

The six “humane” virtues, courage, fidelity, restraint, generosity, tolerance, and forgiveness, were the focus of a series of talks for ABC Radio between Stephanie Dowrick, psychotherapist, and presenter Geraldine Doogue. They coincided with Dowrick’s diagnosis with breast cancer, and the end of three years of legal battle, in court proceedings spread over several months. This is a summary of what the book says.

Courage is not heroism and can be present with fear: “It is what will allow us to go into our own particular versions of hell. It is what will give us the strength and the grace to re-emerge, and still find life worth living.” Fidelity is not about sexual monogamy, or about keeping our promises:

“Fidelity is nothing more than finding out who you are and learning to be true to this, so that, as night follows day, ‘thou canst not then be false to any man’.”

Restraint is not about repression or constraint. It has a lot to do with the habit of going at speed, of not taking time to notice things. It is about being in the moment:

Using restraint to carve out this space for us, to free us from the tedium of stale or habitual responses, to give us a chance to appreciate the freshness of each new moment, to remind us that we continually have choices, we gain a vital chance to grow into the fullness of who we are.

Generosity is about being attentive to what is needed right now. It can be about giving things, and that’s nice, but not the point. Being wholly able “to listen, to watch, to think, to talk, to pause, to care” is the point: “The impulse to generosity must arise from something more [than will], from something that is as near as any of us can get to unconditional love.”

Tolerance is not apathy, resignation, ignorance or lack of action. It does not condone behaviour that exploits, discriminates or dehumanises. It “probably involves learning some relatively unpalatable untruths about yourself.” “Tolerance recognises difference, subtleties and inconsistencies that cannot be measured or categorised . . . tolerance thrives on the unexpected.” (Tolerance is the tough one for me – the tolerance of those whom I am then asked to embrace as members of the human family “in a vital articulation of our common humanity” is an area where for now I will admit defeat. I don’t even have to think of the Suhartos of this world. Inept New Zealand politicians will do.)

Forgiveness is not a matter of stating the socially expected in order to move on. And forgetting is not the point either. It’s possible, but not usual for forgiveness to happen quickly. Dowrick quotes Clarissa Pinloa Estes: “There are many ways and portions to forgiving a person, a community, a nation for an offense. It is a conscious decision to cease to harbour resentment.” Forgiveness demands forsaking vengeance. It requires you to be careful in how you apportion blame. It can be completely one-sided. It does not require a visit or communication: “[T]o forgive may be an act of supreme love and gentleness, but it is also tough. It demands at least one party faces the truth – and learns something of value from it.”

I imagine many self-help books to be filled with small vignettes of friends or clients acting as illustrations, quotations from sages and psychoanalysts, and lines from diverse spiritual sources. These are all present, as are Dowrick’s own politics on feminism, nationalism, apartheid, inequalities, the arms race. Since I generally hold the same position on all these, I was not forced to exercise any virtues in respect of Dowrick while reading about her politics. I did wonder about the response of a reader who didn’t agree, and ran the risk of confusing politics with therapy (a mass confusion of the 1990s). But I liked the clean text devoid of intrusive footnotes, and I recognised that to catch the nuances, this book required a gentler pace, prompting reflection, not something I was able to offer Cordelia.

Dowrick has spoken of feminine writing being allusive, uncertain and exploratory – “the inner life, the unconscious, the non-linear, the introverted”. Feminine writing can be all these things, but to succeed, it must show craft and skill on the page. The content of Forgiveness lent itself to this challenge. Tasting Salt remained exploratory.

Marilyn Waring is the author of Counting for nothing and Three Masquerades and teaches in the School of Policy Studies and Social Work at the Albany Campus of Massey University.

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