The High Jump: A New Zealand Childhood
Victoria University Press, $24.95,
Anyone who grew up in New Zealand in the 1960s and ’70s can bask in the nostalgia of Elizabeth Knox’s trilogy The High Jump about the Keene girls growing up, like Topsy, in Wellington. I am of that era myself and recognised the old familiar furniture of my own childhood and felt like a museum visitor wandering through the Golden Days section at Te Papa.
The Keene family kids have school lunches furnished with small iconic boxes of Sun Maid raisins; their favourite television programmes are Lassie and Town and Around; and the hip music of the time includes the oft-heard pop anthems, “Those Were the Days My Friend” and “Do the Bluebeat”. To recognise one’s own small “culture” so strongly signposted in this book was, to use a ghastly new age expression, “a validating experience”, except that the characters seemed stilted and not fully realised.
The book divides into three geographical parts, “Pomare”, “Paremata” and “Tawa” (the respective titles of the original novellas when these were published individually). In Knox’s own words (in her Afterword), the whole offers a commemoration of the everyday, ordinary lives of a Kiwi family in a certain era. But the children she writes about are neither ordinary nor average.
The Keene family consists of three girls, Jo, Lex and Steph. Hester, their mother, is not a working mum as that would be atypical of the era; and Frank, Dad, is a sub-editor at the Listener, the Good Book of the intelligentsia. It is Frank we know most about by the end of the trilogy, and not Hester, who comes across as a rather peripheral figure forever puffing away on a cigarette and watching her kids from the small distance of doorways.
Frank is moody, reflective, an outsider who’d rather stay at home lying on the couch listening to Beethoven than venture out into the shiny new world of the ’60s sub-division and mix it with the neighbourhood. Frank reads Tolstoy and Proust to Jo his first-born, of whom he has high expectations, while Lex, number two in the sibling line-up, is allowed a more carefree tomboy existence, fighting with gangs of boys in the idyllic bush and living the outdoor Kiwi existence to the limit.
The Keene girls are separate from the mob because they are the progeny of an intellectual father, who has infected them with free thought. Being a man of ideas at a time in our history when it was unfashionable, poofterish even, to think too much, means that Frank is viewed by the community with some suspicion. When the family briefly has a stab at brutal but slightly elevated life in Wadestown, Jo overhears her new friend Roslyn’s mother saying of her: “I don’t like that girl. She’s vulgar. She has a horrible journalist’s accent.”
Though Lex is a hoyden and a spirited adventuress in the bush, she has inherited the nameless feeling from her father that she doesn’t quite fit into the general scheme of things. At school she attracts attention from teachers for being dreamy and inattentive in the classroom and winds up in a special class where she manages once again to be the alien. At sport, Lex finds to her surprise, and that of the gym instructress (who has already dealt with the physically uncoordinated Jo), that she excels at the high jump. But of course, running true to non-conformist type, she has her own style of jumping which she refuses to abandon even though she is under pressure to flop à la Fosbury.
The outsider is a common enough theme in New Zealand literature, and that now heavily-trampled path is littered with so many outcasts that they have quite a sizeable club membership of their own, which now includes Frank, Jo and Lex.
The trouble with The High Jump is that it fails to clear the bar. There is lift-off, and Knox has given us an interesting enough family dynamic, but the characters lack vigour. Do we want to know why Hester is so dismissive of Steph, her youngest daughter, when the latter reveals that she has been regularly interfered with by Critchlow, the Keene’s elderly neighbour? Yes, we do, because Hester’s lack of maternal outrage and visceral rush to protect her young is puzzling. Critchlow’s body-snatching invasions of the infant Steph go unchecked, and it is left to the heroic Lex to seek retribution, breaking every window-pane in his house in a macho attempt at punching the old paedophile’s lights out.
The High Jump is a faithful enough recording of growing up in Godzone, but this is dull, dull, dull, stuff despite the finely crafted writing and the slavish attention to detailing the life and times.
The book’s biggest flaw perhaps is that it fails to evoke empathy. Admittedly, there is some sympathy for Frank, who thrashes about deciding whether to stand by his mentor, Dr Bill Sutch, when the latter is being investigated for treason. However, there is a lack of sympathy on the home front, with Critchlow – a toothless ancient who comes down like a wolf on the fold of Frank’s daughters – allowed to go unchecked because of the hardship he endured in the war. This is big dramatic stuff, and the parental inertia displayed should surely be dysfunctional and tragic. So why did I feel nothing for the characters involved?
Because The High Jump is merely a chronicle of events that has no real dramatic force. What I read was a photograph, albeit a very good photograph, of a certain type of childhood that will never make the big picture but will be relegated to the box of family slides. For us to enter into the consciousness of these 2-D characters, what was needed was lights, camera and a true explanation of their inaction.
Jane Bowron is a columnist for the Evening Post.