Swimming with the tide, Sally Sutton

The Sound of her Body
Laurence Fearnley
Hazard Press, $16.95,
ISBN 1 877161 25 X

Night Swimming
Emma Neale
Vintage, $24.95,
ISBN 1 86941 376 8

Spinners
Anthony McCarten
Vintage, $24.95,
ISBN 1 86941 355 5

The American poet Randall Jarrell once said that a novel is a fiction of uncertain length with something wrong with it. If this definition applies to works by even the most experienced writers, one cannot help wondering what hope is left for those attempting a novel for the very first time. New authors have always faced a difficult task, being required to plunge head-first into the unknown and often turbulent sea of writing and publishing. Confused by rips and currents, battered by jagged rocks of self-doubt, and constantly aware of the hungrily circling sharks threatening to eat away at their reserves of money, patience and time, many lose the battle and drown. Some, however, manage to keep their heads above water and, just occasionally, produce something spectacular.

It is to the great credit of the more courageous New Zealand publishers that the recent wave of new fiction by first-time writers has endured for so long. This is not to say that there will be no challenges ahead: the on-going popularity of new fiction in this country will last only as long as publishers produce books on the strength of how well they are written, and not merely of how closely they adhere to what is fashionable and what is not. Already certain patterns have become clearly established: many of New Zealand’s new writers are young women and many have been placed – perhaps rather too neatly – in the box labelled “Gen X-ers”. This is all very well and good, so long as popularity in the market place is not gained at the expense of diversity of expression – labels can be dangerous, and publishers with too rigid a faith in the benefits of market forces will only succeed, in the end, in biting the hand that feeds them. It is an especially good omen, therefore, that the first major fiction publications of Laurence Fearnley, Emma Neale and Anthony McCarten are so refreshingly diverse.

2

In The Sound of her Body, Laurence Fearnley exploits the genre of the novella with assurance and style to document the emotional hollowness resulting from a particularly cruel love affair. Despite an ambiguous title which may provoke unfortunate associations in more literally-minded readers, the novella is a precise, beautifully written piece of work. Set against the lovely backdrop of the French countryside, it tells the story of a young New Zealand woman looking back on a journey to France to stay with a man she hardly knows. Just as it is inevitable that they become lovers, so is it inevitable that their affair will end destructively, and the narrative is rich with powerfully poetic images of emptiness and cruelty: smouldering ashes, gutted fish, trapped butterflies, traces of perfume in an empty bottle.

Throughout the book, the protagonist is referred to simply as “the woman”; her lover as “the man”. While this is done for a good reason, it does tend to become unnecessarily confusing when another man or another woman arrives on the scene. A more careful placement of commas might have helped to clarify ambiguities: “the man who digs the garden” is in fact the man, who also happens to be digging the garden. While people in the book are usually described in detached, objective prose, thus lending weight to the woman’s sense of emptiness and isolation, the French landscape is painted with such an evocative sensuality that it almost becomes a character in its own right.

This contrast between the landscape and the people who live in it is one of the most striking features of the book. Fearnley’s greatest talent, though, is an extraordinarily acute visual sense which gives her descriptions the texture of real life. Her writing is more painting than prose: poppies in fields are “Manet red splotches against the yellow-green drying grasses”; the tail of a mouse caught by a cat forms “a squirming, Dali-esque moustache across the cat’s face”.

But whereas Fearnley’s descriptions of the landscape are rich and compelling throughout, the motivations of her characters are somewhat less convincing. The man is portrayed as such a monster – cruel and indifferent by turns and never once doing anything that endears him even remotely to anyone – that the woman’s love for him is hard to understand. A painting, by necessity, is static, and Fearnley deliberately reflects this in her prose. Her writing is so coldly detached and impersonal, and the desired effect of emotional numbness so successful, that it tends to undermine rather than heighten the reader’s perception of the woman’s distress. Nothing moves very far in this story. The heroine yearns for the sea, but there are no fresh waves of action, no undercurrents of humour, no tides of anger or love or even passion. The resounding image of the novella is, true to its intention, one of hollowness. This said and done, it is rare to find a writer who does not waste a single word. Laurence Fearnley will be someone to watch for in the future.

3

I can’t help wondering what Emma Neale’s Night Swimming might have been like if it were a novella instead of a novel; I think, perhaps, it would have been better. The novel tells the story of Marie, a New Zealander in London. Fifteen years after the mysterious disappearance of her best friend from a small New Zealand town, Marie thinks she catches sight of Jenny on a train. The experience shocks her greatly, and brings about the flood of memories and questions which forms the bulk of the novel’s dramatic narrative.

Night Swimming has been described as a coming-of-age story, but because it is told by a woman looking back on her adolescence, it gains another dimension that both adds depth and muddies the waters somewhat. The novel seems to be a personal quest on the part of the narrator to confront a series of issues that are never really clearly formulated. In part, it seems to be a yearning to return to the dizzy highs and lows of adolescence, in part an attempt to grieve for the loss and betrayal of Jenny, to understand what happened to her and why.

In keeping with the water imagery present throughout the novel, Marie seems merely to be waiting for the relevance of her past with Jenny to “sink in”. The result is a lot of rather painstaking soul-searching which leads to the novel taking on, at times, the confessional tone of a prolonged, slightly embarrassing diary entry:  “So many memories seem to want attention, pulling and softly whispering at me, not to be left out,” observes Marie. Nor, it would seem, are they left out, and while this may be therapeutic for the narrator, it isn’t always for the reader. At the same time, however, it gives the novel an authentic ring: Neale must be given credit here for having the courage to acknowledge the importance of adolescent friendships in forming girls’ characters and preparing them for relationships of other sorts.

The best parts of Night Swimming are the scenes that describe the two girls growing up together. These are often stunning. The feelings of a shy teenager attracted to a prettier, more daring friend are beautifully and accurately rendered, as are the day-to-day highs and lows of a teen’s life: the first, breathless encounters with the opposite sex, the first visit to a nightclub, run-ins with parents, and so on. Neale also has a rare and wonderful talent for the subtleties of teenage Kiwi dialogue; for example, when Jenny tells Marie of her stepmother’s attempts to acquaint her with the facts of life:

“Yeah, but I mean, Marion is like, ‘Jenny, I want to make sure you know about your monthly.’ And I’m, like, ‘My monthly what? Bus pass?’ And she goes all pleased-looking, as if we’re sharing this really special moment, and she says, ‘Every month, a girl’s body gets ready to . . .’, and so then I interrupt her, I’m so embarrassed. Does she think I’m a moron, or what?”

Night Swimming is a gentle, agreeably unpretentious first novel about a friendship that has not been permitted to run its natural course. Because of this, it is probably necessary that much of the novel, true to its title, is adrift in the dark.

4

Spinners is another kettle of fish altogether. I read this novel expecting a good laugh: what I got was a great deal more. It would be a mistake to label playwright Anthony McCarten – well known for his co-written play Ladies’ Night and his film Via Satellite – as merely a comic writer. This is not to say that his novel isn’t funny – it is, very – but it is a reflection of his considerable talent as a writer that he is able to present themes of much seriousness within the framework of the utterly ridiculous.

His novel is a sci-fi, detective story, social satire, religious allegory and romance all rolled into one and all set in the thoroughly uninspiring town of Opunake. When the freezing-worker Delia Chapman calmly announces that she has had sex with aliens from a visiting spacecraft, and it later transpires that she is pregnant, Opunake is thrown into a state of near-apocalyptic chaos. Everyone has a theory for Delia’s outrageous claim: it is overwork; it is the product of a wild imagination; it is a cry for attention, an Americanism, a fin de siècle quest for spirituality, the Pentagon, the truth. Or perhaps it is just Sergeant Watson’s new speed camera. The only thing the bored citizens of Opunake can agree on is that they love it (“They thought: It’s true. The wildest rumours were true. Delia Chapman was going around ‘talking shit’. It was brilliant.”)

As the story progresses, and we realise that there are some very real tragedies taking place in Opunake, McCarten plummets headfirst into philosophical and religious hot water. Moving from the sublime to the ridiculous and back with breathtaking speed, he endows the ordinary and sometimes vulgar with universal importance, poking fun at small-town New Zealanders while also reinforcing their value in a way that is both touching and hilarious. It is all very naughty and deliciously irreverent: the spaceship is shaped like “a torpedo, a sausage”; it has “millions of knobs” and did not fly or woosh, but “rose” (“Oh. I see. It rose. Well fuck me.”). There are also some great one-liners (“Margaret Watson’s guilt was so acute that she cleaned the fridge right down to the vegetable rack.”).

This novel is Kiwi fiction at its best, and will make a wonderful film. It is a weird, yet instantly recognisable world where imagination replaces religion and dead cows abound; a canny observation of the human need for storytelling and a tribute to the triumphs – and failures – of the imagination. At the end of the book, we can’t help feeling respect for the gritty Delia Chapman. It is not surprising, then, that her new-found “philosophy” has great relevance not only for new authors struggling with their first novels, but also, and perhaps especially, for the publishers who contemplate accepting them. If you were ever caught in a rip tide, Delia advises, you must swim with, and not against the tide: “As terrifying as this would be, it was your only chance. And you shouldn’t just be carried along by the tide either, . . . you should swim faster than it! – this was how you escaped the sea’s terrible grip.”

This is, I think, a lesson for us all.

Sally Sutton is an Auckland writer currently preparing her first novel for publication.

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