Recovering time, Juliet Rowe

Eating Peacocks
Barbara Else
Vintage, $29.95,
ISBN 1 86941 378 4

Delia Whittborne, aged 28, wakes up in a hospital bed paralysed and in pain. She is aware only of her name, her immediate surroundings, and a sense of recent fear. Eating Peacocks is the story of her recovery. In parallel with the healing of her body, she gradually regains her memory, especially the recent memory of her relationship with her current partner, and with her parents and friends. On a deeper level again, through violent dreams and nightmares, a traumatic event from her childhood is revealed. This has confused and scarred her psychologically, giving her a fear of fire and an unresolved and bloody memory of peacocks, puppets, dogs, beasts and grandparents. When Delia is finally ready to leave hospital, she has recovered from her injuries, she no longer has amnesia, and she has managed to resolve the other major conflicts in her life.

Barbara Else’s latest novel contains themes and situations similar to those in her other two books. A strong female character, in the process of extricating herself from a dilemma, learns to take control of her life and acquires self-knowledge at the same time. The stresses of human relations, and of family life in particular, are emphasised. An ironic treatment of the moneyed middle-classes is presented in a recognisably New Zealand suburban setting, on this occasion Wellington. But Else also introduces new themes in this novel. She goes beneath the surfaces of society, deals with domestic violence and with sexual skeletons in the family closet, which have resulted in childhood trauma and repressed memory syndrome (although in this case it is the adults who deny the child’s memory).

With Delia, Barbara Else has once again created a convincing, likeable heroine, just as she did with Kate in The Warrior Queen and Sophie in Gingerbread Husbands. Equally persuasive is the account of Delia’s relationship with Shuck. Some of the other characters, however, seem less successful. When the social mores of the middle-classes become the target, the characters can turn into caricatures. We enjoy their discomfort but do not find them wholly convincing. Would Delia’s mother, even if she has ”bought into the beauty myth”, really say to her seriously ill daughter, “With your brains, and a little work on how you present yourself, you could turn into a thinking man’s Barbie”? She does partially recant in the following sentence, “God, Delia, what a terrible thing to say. Sometimes you bring out the worst in me.” But would she have made the remark in the first place?

Then there is the party where Shuck meets several of Delia’s friends for the first time. Apart from Shuck, they are all apparently well-educated, successful and able to converse with wit and style. But the level of the conversation belies their supposed intelligence:

Erica served Chocolate Indulgence: Chocolate with chocolate and eggs, held together with a wisp of flour and chocolate.
“What a piss-off that I’m not bulimic,” Carol said.
Nathan served a Madeira and spilled some on the tablecloth. “Fuck,” he said, “that was the ’93.”
“Where’s the other glasses?” asked Carol. This time there were only five of the right-shaped ones with hand-painted stars on; the extra three were whisky tumblers.
“He threw them at me,” Erica said.
Nathan kissed his fingers to her. “I only broke two. You smashed the other one when you chucked it back and I ducked.”

There are more such attempts at pithy comment:

“Delia’s rich, like me,” said Erica. “Or her daddy is, Shuck, I hope you know that. He’s a self-made man. And her grandad was rolling and rolling.”
“And her mother has got breeding,” said someone else. “As well as another new Fiat.”

These are not interesting and intelligent characters whom we would like to know better: they are pretentious and shallow, and unfortunately since they are her friends, serve rather to diminish than enhance our sense of Delia’s integrity.

There is no male equivalent to Delia, in strength, wisdom or self-awareness. Else writes very much from a feminist perspective, and the men are consequently rather stereotypical and one-dimensional. They are also the butt of much authorial comment:

Guys were all too young, too old, too thick, too intellectual, too fat, too scrawny, too full of themselves – or else they had worse problems with their self-esteem than Delia. Whatever: they were most of them fuck-witted with relationships. It was the fault of evolution. Their first function was to spread their sperm around; thinking was a later add-on.

Delia’s mother is determined that Delia find herself a man:

“I mean one who’s had some education, isn’t gay and has a job with prospects,” said her mother. “And no more young aggressors who are evangelical about tofu, if you don’t mind. I won’t ask you to find a chap who’s perfect – the entire tribe has malformations of physique if not of personality.”

Having said that, Eating Peacocks contains numerous examples of Else’s trademark wryness, her quick wit: “Money. The stuff that stuffs relationships.” Or “I was too scared of my mother’s rod of iron. Well, her standing in the community, that was her rod of iron.”

Although more ambitious, and complex, this book is not as successful as The Warrior Queen. The latter was a simple tale, well told, of adultery and revenge. It was focused and tightly constructed. Eating Peacocks, by contrast, seems over-written, overladen with material – too many peripheral characters, unnecessary dialogue, confused dream sequences, distracting flashbacks, a plethora of mythical and biblical allusions. Those devices, used so effectively in the earlier novels, have proved less successful in presenting the more serious themes at the heart of her latest work.

Juliet Rowe is an Auckland reviewer.

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