Thank God for Harvey, Helen Beaglehole

Window Licking in the City of Love 
Jennifer Maxwell
Flamingo, $24.95,
ISBN 4 86950 348 X

Table at Sunset Lodge
Vonnie Alexander
Quoin Press, $24.95,
ISBN 1 877163 25 2

Butterfly Mind
Gwyneth Perry
Bookcaster Press, $20.00,
ISBN 0 473 06063 9

An Unnatural Beginning
Anne Mulcock
Hazard Press, $24.95,
ISBN 1 877161 53 5

Rumours of Dreams
Sandi Hall
Spinifex, $27.95,
ISBN 1 875559 75 2

 

New Zealand women writers are certainly tackling a wide variety of subjects – ageing and reconciling the past, the elderly and old people’s homes, ex-pats and identity, a birth-mother’s driving sense of loss arising from adoption, and an imagined reconstruction of Christ’s life as a child and young man. In the main, though, these books didn’t satisfy.

The exception was Jennifer Maxwell’s Window Licking in the City of Love. I read with initial enjoyment. Who’s not going to be amused by her description of “the personal growth industry” as “Sort of Pollyanna joins Hitler Youth”? Who won’t enjoy a small child knowing that “incontinent” means “overseas”? And I remember only too well those awful woollen togs, wet and filled with sand “so they’d dangle between your legs like bulls’ balls”. I was swept by energetic prose from one clever witticism to the next as Polly, a woman of many words, wife of the transformed Eric, daughter of George whose nudity went too far, sheds her family, her friends, her country, and even her self, in a journey that lets her come to terms with the rage at her mother’s death and her own ageing.

But Polly’s rage – the book’s focus – makes it ultimately unsatisfactory. Polly’s relationships with her two elderly aunts and hints of occasional softness with her husband and sisters suggest she is capable of sympathy and empathy. Yet in portraying Polly’s crisis, the author allows almost nothing to escape the relentless lash of cutting, critical comment. Even an interesting typification of small North and South Island towns loses its point because she’s already damned the towns as “forgettable”. Her rage lost my sympathy and I’d have throttled her long before she reached Paris. Nor did the focus make the book’s various resolutions satisfactory. It may have deflated Polly’s rage to find out about the current situation of her 1960s deflowerer, now a fundamentalist politician, but the wider issues invoked in setting up that situation were not dealt with; and the ending I found unlikely and inadequate. One final, very minor quibble – wouldn’t someone like Polly have known the plural of “Maori” is “Maori”? These reservations notwithstanding, Maxwell set herself a hard task, and went a long way to succeeding. I look forward to her next book.

2

Table at Sunset Lodge, published to coincide with the International Year of Older Persons, also looks at ageing. The past and current lives of five residents in a Wellington rest home are described through flashbacks intended, the blurb tells us, to smash the myth that all “‘wrinklies’ are kind, benevolent, and slightly dotty”, and to establish them as individuals.

I’m always suspicious of novels with messages, and this one confirmed those suspicions. Certainly ageing is often a sad losing grip on once strong faculties, distressing to the person involved and to their families, and certainly there are issues round the institutionalisation of care. But issues need to be explored in a way that makes them integral to novels’ structures and stories. In Table readers are given the benefits of the author’s general knowledge on facts ranging from the number of institutions in New Zealand and their categorisation, scrutiny, and licensing, to the commercialisation of care, to the Depression, World War 2, demobilisation, the name of German bombs, to the shrinking of the world from modern communications, the medicalisation of childbirth,
menopause, and premenstrual tension – even to road rage.

The book’s structure compounds the problem. The scope is ambitious but not handled well. Flashbacks fill in the lives of five characters. Too often the characters’ lives are reduced to cataloguing information that illuminates neither the incidents nor the characters. Moreover, with one exception (and how I welcomed Harvey) those flashbacks provide the only instances of the residents’ vitality and go. And they’re all in the past, with contemporary interaction limited largely to mealtimes and mopping up. Nor does this combination of characterisation and structure allow for any foil to their beliefs – I often wondered if the views on running, body piercing, or the bizarre discussion on euthanasia didn’t reflect the author’s opinions.

3

There must be a fashion for switching between past and present tense. For reasons that escaped me, Ms Alexander indulges in it only early in the book, then right at the end. Gwyneth Perry’s Butterfly Mind uses it unnecessarily to distinguish between accounts of Win’s life in New Zealand in the 1960s, her long-overseas sojourns and the life she leads as housewife and mother in Paris; and her current visit to New Zealand where she is facing questions of belonging.

The book is prefaced by excerpts from enthusiastic reviews of her previous novel. That success has eluded her here. One problem is the same one Ms Alexander faces. Perry wants us to know about Win’s past and the way it informs her present. Again this is done by flashbacks, and again the past is too often reduced to a flat cataloguing of events or statements about people involved in them. Win may have found life “full and rewarding”, but its quality eludes the reader. I gained no impression of the Paris Win was living in, nor of the cultured, intelligent person she is supposed to be. References to authors, whether English or French, come across as pretentious; when Win, back in Auckland thinks she’ll “drop into the Art Gallery to see where her country’s art is going”, I had no reason to be convinced of her ability to discern that; in spite of thinking in the 1960s of writing a “feminist” thesis on Milton (which would have put her well in advance of her time) she leads a very conventional life as a French housewife. By the time she had come back from a “most successful” naughty holiday with a friend and both were “happy it was over and looked forward to getting home”, I looked forward to finishing the book.

4

Adoption, and adoption practices, have for some time been under review. An Unnatural Beginning chronicles the impact of adoption on Fran, forced, as an unwed mother, to have her daughter adopted. The fact leaves her not only with an uneasy secret but also a longing to discover her child. Both contribute to her dismissal from a boarding school in (by my calculation) the late 1950s, possibly early 1960s, and to events that move her to a new beginning.

Anne Mulcock won a national competition with a novel in the 70s and has had considerable success recently as a short story writer. She first drafted this novel some time back, which may account for some of my criticisms. Her subject may have been new and topical then – now a number of other writers have explored it more powerfully. The women’s gardening group is trivialised in a treatment I don’t think it would get today, and the resolution of Fran’s situation – marriage – seems, like the resolution in Window Licking, curious in the light of modern consciousness. Conversely, I was bothered by various anachronisms. The board’s discussions sound much more 90s than 60s. Were people called “Toby” then? Blue denims and mags with articles on contraception there certainly weren’t.

The style of writing also does the story a disservice. Again, there is too much telling, so that Fran seems curiously passive, acted on rather than acting – she accepts the treatment meted out at the school; she’s used by her sister; and the ending only occurs because of Toby’s insistence. Using the present tense on occasions doesn’t add the drama the telling lacks.

5

Sandi Hall’s Rumours of Dreams also seems a curious throwback to an earlier decade. Hall is interested in the daily realities behind the Jesus myth, though the novel “reflects the foci” of “a woman whose education, thought and writing have been formed by Western culture”. The story is told by Stelle Mante whose childhood contact with Santer leads to their lives becoming inextricably woven together. Stella Mante’s own life, her continuance in various forms, links Santer’s life to an Auckland that, in 2006, is overrun with warring groups.

I should say at once that as soon as I read “I stretched hard, coming into my body” and “the pungent blood of women-being streaked my thighs”, got through the section exalting menstruation, and came on (yet another) feast of wholemeal bread, figs, and honey, I knew this was not my sort of book. But that’s not the basis of my dissatisfaction. The writing overwhelms with adjectives or adjectival phrases. Often this is indiscriminate – a car whose only role is to carry Stella and a companion into Auckland has line upon line of description. Perhaps that’s how people spoke in the past, but clauses such as “where lived men who made robbing people their livelihood” seem odd in contemporary writing. The tense changes from past to present, at times within the same sentence – Hall’s editor has let her down. And the ending – affirming faith in the power of women to achieve some great revolution – is unconvincing and simplistic. The world is too complex for that type of response.

 

Helen Beaglehole’s novel for young adults, hanging on letting go, was reviewed in our August issue.

 

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