Experts in avoidance, Emma Neale

Nineteen Widows Under Ash
Damien Wilkins
Victoria University Press, $29.95,
ISBN 086473395X


Wilkins’ new novel, set in the United States, begins as Evelyn Herbert undertakes a road journey to her Pacific Northwest hometown. She has left her husband, and taken their 13-year-old daughter with her. Her old home, however, is barely a place of refuge and comfort: there is no symbolic returning to the womb for rejuvenation, healing. Her own mother has died of cancer, so she stays with her elderly stepfather in a setting which is experiencing a level three alert as a local volcano increases its activity. And yet the lasting impressions of this book are of coolness and restraint: of Wilkins consciously holding back from metaphorical, stylistic, and narrative manifestations of fire, heat, passion, and urgency. This is at once a postmodernist’s deliberate deflection of the romantic trope and the cliché, and a brand of realism that makes a virtue of the anti-climax, of the way lives and minds so often skirt around what would seem to be their central concerns – either out of wilful avoidance, lack of self-knowledge, or because both the everyday and the exceptional force us to confront their pragmatic demands first.

The novel is set in America, and yet this isn’t predominantly a study of the United States. The only overt examinations of American culture might be: one character’s purported possession of a gun (although as he is under emotional distress, it’s conceivable that this could occur anywhere); the scenes of market stalls perched around the simmering volcano, owners keen to cash in on tourist interest in natural phenomena or imminent disaster (yet people make a buck out of geological curiosities, tragedy, and tourists in Asia, also); or specific State laws regarding Voluntary Euthanasia (the reference to this is fleeting). The fact that the main characters are constantly living on the edge of potential natural disaster, which they have learnt largely to ignore, makes the novel more pointedly a Pacific novel than one that looks at typically American themes (such as the New World melting-pot metropolis, the rise from poverty to success, religious freedom, democracy, Making it New).

So why set it in America at all? The imagination knows no bounds could be one answer – we’re members of any imaginative community we choose, as much as we are members of any national group (the nation itself being an imaginary concept, as Benedict Anderson has argued). The physical life does know bounds, however: writers need to eat, pay mortgages, and feed their families, and America offers more potential sales than does New Zealand. Wilkins perches his own bookstall near the market with the most activity.

There are other links to American culture, however. Wilkins’ dialogue, to my ear, holds traces of quite diverse American authors. Experts in avoidance, his characters use the emphatic (yet often deliberately unrevealing) repetitions of a Tennessee Williams, as well as the questions, evasions, surprising arrivals of David Mamet’s scripts. Also, an early scene recalls what has become an archetypal modern American literary moment: the car that strikes, or the vehicle that encounters, a wild animal – Stafford’s deer, Bishop’s moose (echoed also by Olson, Hass, Doty, Glück, and others). Here Evelyn’s apparently harmless accident with a deer offers a foretaste of a more disturbing car crash – and a brief explanation of one aspect of the novel’s reined-in voice: “You don’t know what’s gonna happen next. Nobody does.” Climax never quite arrives, because the moment is always moving on, swallowed by another.


The novel itself touches on some important questions, and offers a number of surprises. There are plenty of incidents in this novel – things do happen – yet the arc of these differs from the more immediately compulsive appeal of conventional plot. Although his staccato style is lucid, Wilkins demands disciplined readers. Perhaps for fear of falling into either sentiment or predictability, he withdraws from the pleasures of narrative drive, or from the illusion of full immersion in his characters’ mindscapes. (He uses what James Wood, writing of Muriel Spark, has called “the smartly intrusive” authorial voice – Evelyn is given memories which the author then corrects – so that her fallibility is made clear, and we are just held short of close identification with her.)

What does move the novel along is a kind of deferred understanding. Dramatic tension comes from conflict or moments of incomprehension between characters. Wilkins is expert at catching the finer shades of these. He slides in elliptical statements about people, events, or places. (What was Evelyn’s visit to Sri Lanka an escape from, and why did the fact that she had only turned out to swap one lake for another mean that she hadn’t escaped?) Many such questions are only implicitly answered: and yet this contributes to Wilkins’ depiction of the tilting and tipping of a consciousness which is not so much random as associative. Although the author does stand back and judge Evelyn at times, in the main this is fluently run alongside an effective portrait of a mind reminding itself of its life. One sight, sound or event triggers contemplation of another. This can lead to some curious snooker shots from the prose – as when Evelyn’s thoughts, immediately after a second, more serious car accident, delve at length into her relationship with her stepfather. (The delirious accident-victim is more convincingly preoccupied with something else largely peripheral: how to get the blood out of her clothes.)

The accident has unexpected consequences for Evelyn. She has been driving with Victoria, her daughter, and some of the girl’s new friends. Seeking explanations for how the accident happened, the novel shows a moral side: Evelyn asks herself, was it a moment of pride that led to the collision? It then seems that some sinister kind of punishment is indeed going to be meted out to her: she begins to receive crank phone calls from a man obsessed by the accident, which Wilkins describes with an effective, inching sense of horror. Evelyn is also increasingly ostracised by other townsfolk – rumours have circulated that she was drinking before the crash. Wilkins has a fine sense of bristling, small-town hostility, and the inescapable social links that connect people of very different ilk. Satisfyingly, Evelyn fights back: yet a cunningly crafted run of events continues to pursue her.

Wilkins savours a tangy intellectual twist upon readerly expectations: the crank caller is not obsessed with the way the accident-victim’s life was threatened – but with how his own death has been postponed as a result. A visit to a butterfly enclosure with an elderly priest is not spiritually epiphanic or ecstatic: it is suffocating, and offers brief insight into the heart of darkness. Lenny, the former schoolyard scapegoat during Evelyn’s schooldays, who is now ill, as an adult does not evoke empathy or pity in the reader. His extraordinary death wish, rather than conveying an overwhelming urge of thanatos, comes to feel like a distasteful piece of self-dramatisation. The reader’s scorn perpetuates his childhood victimisation. This kind of unseating of expectations is quirky, original, challenging.

The other pleasure in Wilkins’ prose is his ability to convey atmosphere and setting: the way Evelyn tries to describe an unfamiliar scent when she steps out of a car in the first chapter after her departure; the shift from headiness and abandon to squabbling in Denis’s and Evelyn’s commuter-style marriage; the dingy motel room that Denis checks into.

Overall, this is a sombre, reflective novel, despite the concision of its style. Nearly all of the relationships seem to be conducted under the sad drift of cold ash. And yet the final image had me laughing out loud. The fine balance of adjectives isn’t overtly given to Evelyn – yet it so clearly also comments on human character. Here it comes, ordinary, domestic phoenix, pecking its way out of loss: offering a small sign of what Wilkins calls the “mystery” of connection and tenderness his characters are capable of achieving:


A flurry, a blur of blueish grey … A few feet from Evelyn’s outstretched hand … it was approaching her, in the manner – blind-seeming, skeptical, driven – all hens recognise a potential good.


Emma Neale is a freelance writer and editor living in Dunedin. She has recently been awarded the Todd New Writers’ Bursary.


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