The emptiness within, Heather Murray

The Lonely Margins of the Sea
Shonagh Koea
Vintage, $29.95,
ISBN 1 86941 348 2

On the lonely margins of society, Shonagh Koea’s women conduct their lives. It is a rich territory evidently, for after five novels and two volumes of short fiction since 1987, Koea shows no signs of having exhausted the theme. In the aptly named The Lonely Margins of the Sea, Koea considers her latest fringe-dwellers, the middle-aged cousins, Stephanie and Louise, who are brought together after a long separation by Louise’s illness and her need for Stephanie’s support.

Louise lives on in the faded and depleted glories of her old family house by the sea. Her family were the sort of people who once owned “farms and fur coats and newspapers purchased from all the main cities and magazines and trips on yachts and rings and parties and horses and kisses and dancing and large cars”. Stephanie was the poor relation whose mother had married beneath her, an unfortunate, violent man who ran off with a floozy. Whatever treats Stephanie enjoyed were those casually bestowed by the rich relations, her clothes were their hand-me-downs (“And how would you like some nice warm stockings, just gone a little bit in the toes – the tiniest stitch would fix them in a moment?”).

As earlier reviewers of Koea have noted, she is sparing with plot. Her subject matter is domestic. Like Jane Austen, she is happy with her “little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush”. Stephanie cooks the meals and nurses Louise. Together they buy tomatoes, walk about the garden or the beach, drive to town for groceries or a haircut. On their first night together, Louise locks her bedroom door. And the house is curiously stripped of sharp knives. But gradually they evolve a new relationship built on their shared past, even if Louise still patronises: “Somewhere in here” – Louise is reaching into an old wardrobe among the sequinned ball gowns, the mauve tweed suits with parma violet suede gloves still in the pockets, the cashmere greatcoat – “there’s a black georgette dress that might be just the thing for you.”

While not much happens, Koea’s strength as a narrator lies in her method of gradually revealing what has gone before. It is done with skill and great timing. She strikes a mood and tone which admirably suit the load of past life she has to reveal. Louise’s privileged upbringing has not brought her happiness, and she may be dying of cancer. Stephanie’s early deprivations have followed her through adult life, until, unable to tolerate her married lover’s evasions, lying, selfishness and whining, she snaps: “and that was when she looked past the spoons, right to the back of the drawer where the old carving knife was kept.” Few might mourn the skewering of such a twerp, but society dictates that Stephanie be locked away. She is a model prisoner – at least, she would be if she would only reveal to the authorities where she was and what she did during the hour and a half immediately after despatching wotsisname. It was the day for Stephanie to settle old scores, and her father was horrible.

The past revealed, we understand the curious stasis, the lack of “plot”. What will happen now? Louise will try to swing it with the gaolers to allow Stephanie out on permanent parole. Stephanie will cook and garden – if she is allowed some sharp implements. Life will go on, for as Koea suggests in the final chapter, “the lonely margins of the sea are truly not untenanted.” Koea is a master of the double negative not quite making a positive. The cousins may not “live”, but they are “in remission”, Louise from her cancer, Stephanie from prison. From the slings of life itself.

The Lonely Margins of the Sea has much to recommend it (although please note, Koea and Vintage, long passages in italic script are not easy to read), and for the reader approaching Koea casually – not as a follower of her whole work – there are new gems of wit, sharp observation, and writerly technique to be enjoyed. But it is timely, after seven volumes, to look back over her output, and try to judge it as a whole, and to check whether an overview might qualify our response to the latest novel.

Readers have different ideas of what makes a good fiction writer, and we place differing emphases on the components of a writer’s craft. For me, the test of worth lies ultimately in the writer’s attitude to and depiction of life, as revealed through character, plot, theme, and style. Usually this may be gleaned only by reading all that the writer publishes. A writer may be a brilliant stylist, or devise stimulating plots, create intriguing characters, cleverly conjure a new theme, or find fresh life in an old one, but none of these facets alone or together, is enough. How does the writer see life? How does the writer think life should be lived? This is the test.

To write specifically of Koea, is her attitude to life, her picture of the human condition one which I could respect, or be inspired by? In short, no. She is good in parts. But her attitude to life, as revealed by her characters, plots, and themes, is one I find life-denying and ultimately profoundly depressing. Her style? It is rich, lush, decorative (some critics have called it mannered and artificial) and seductive after the sparseness of the Sargeson school of writing, but in the end, it seems no more than a decorative façade masking an emptiness within: it becomes a poor substitute for the barrenness of life as Koea sees it. Surely there is more to life than Koea sees? I hope so, or I’ll be reaching into the cutlery drawer myself.

Over an eleven-year publishing period Koea has revisited the same people, the same story. There is the Koea woman, usually a brave widow; there is the Koea man, usually a manipulating tyrant. And there is the Koea story. When asked in a Listener interview (8 August 1992) if her writing was autobiographical, she replied:

“You write from the inside looking out – your main characters are ‘enclosed’ by circumstances that are remarkably like yours.”

“I’m really very lazy. I always set a fiction in a known landscape…”.

Such a narrowed focus need not be a handicap. Very likely Jane Austen’s life experiences provided an even more narrow platform on which to build, and we know what a success she made of it. The difference lies in the attitude to life: Austen is sharp, ironic, pointing out the foibles of society, hoping to reform it, but in the end, enjoying the company of her fellow mortals. She has faith in human goodness, love, and the need for sociability, and the possibility of redemption. Koea is acerbic (a Quote/Unquote heading called her “The Acid Queen”), cynical, and often plain nasty and snobbish. Whereas Austen pulls up a chair and joins the human race (our faults are her faults), Koea withdraws to self-imposed and splendid isolation. Clearly she does not like us.

Her first novel, The Grandiflora Tree (1989), is a small masterpiece of misanthropy. Expanding on a short story, “Mrs Pratt Goes to China” from the first collection, The Woman Who Never Went Home (1987), it reveals how hard it is for a youngish woman to be widowed (the body suddenly found beneath the grandiflora tree) and have to deal with daily life alone. Associates and relations are no comfort – in fact they hinder. Bernadette Crichton withdraws behind her fences, a blue teddybear her only solace. Behind a “cordon of locked gates, crossed garden rakes or spades, topped by buckets of weeds … notices of increasing severity at the front door”, Bernadette conducts her life. Letters from well-meaning people fail to console, but fill up several chapters of the novel, as do the widow’s sardonic (unposted) replies. Here Koea is devastating in her drollery and cutting wit as she makes fun of human inadequacy:

“ If there’s anything we can do – Nigel’s very handy, aren’t you Nigel?”

Nigel said he was very handy.

“Thank you,” said Mrs Crichton. “I’ll remember that. I’ll

remember Nigel’s very handy.”

Mrs Crichton will shop, go to the beach, live vicariously through the novels she reads, and talk to the bear: she realises that all her efforts to mix with society were merely “abortive episodes of misplaced sociability”. It is hard for the reader not to think that if Mrs Crichton is alone, it serves her right.

Rosalind of Staying Home and Being Rotten (1992) is woman alone, living in genteel poverty in a violent suburban society (with a cat instead of a bear). She is preyed upon by robbers of her worldly goods, and by men who prey on her strength, who steal her self-esteem, her innocence, her health. A peripatetic lover, James (whom Iain Sharp memorably called “a globe-trotting swine of the lowest order”) tries to fit her into his itinerary between sojourns with Margaret and Lorraine (who has the most floriferous pubic hair in Christendom). She shafts him with barbs he is too stupid to understand. How can she rid herself of him?

In Koea’s most idiosyncratic novel, Sing to me, Dreamer (1994), Margaret Harris is the woman alone, living in the decayed splendour of her family home, society encroaching at the perimeter. Human society is so devoid of comfort that Margaret takes an elephant to live in the garden. Provincial society fails to understand that Margaret was Someone Once, that she led an exotic, rich life in India as the mistress of a maharajah, that she has exquisite taste. India to most New Zealanders is a place of tummy bugs, filthy habits, inadequate plumbing, dust and heat; Margaret alone has the sensibility to comprehend the magic. Forced to return home after the death of her mother Margaret sorts and packs, ready to sell up. The novel is rich in description, rococo, over the top in its itemisation of rich objects which the mother, in her final madness, stored in the house, and others which Margaret acquired for services rendered to the maharajah. The objects are relished for their own sake, and respect for them demarcates Margaret from suburban New Zealand.

What is going on here? I am reminded of Evelyn Waugh, who said that he made Brideshead Revisited such an exercise in lushness, full of beauty, rich food and elegant living because he was experiencing the deprivations of war at the time. Has Koea contrived the richness of Margaret’s life as a mythical compensating state for the reality of a barren existence? Only Lawrence Jones among critics has suspected that the “elaborate story of her Indian adventures and her revenge on her New Zealand provincial neighbours may be the wish-fulfilment fabrication of a most unreliable . . . narrator” (Oxford History of New Zealand Literature). Is Margaret (and her creator) wishing such a life upon herself in default of any worthwhile real life? Are we to believe that a rich life depends on relationships with inanimate objects and dumb animals, not with people, or that a rich life might be enjoyed only in the imagination?

A reader should not implicate the writer in the lives of his or her characters, and strictly we should not see Margaret as an extension of Koea herself, but Koea so builds up the dream life of Margaret, she so clearly approves of Margaret, that we feel she must believe the myth, and that she shares the loathing for provincial society. We feel that Koea too finds “real life” in the appreciation of fine objects.

The widow in The Wedding at Bueno-Vista (1996) is Elaine Frobisher who flees the suburbs because working-class thugs prey on her goods. She is no longer safe, especially without a husband for protection. She moves into a high-rise apartment block (a modern version of castle with drawbridge). To fill the gap of a husband’s protection, she plans to stage an imaginary wedding. Married women are protected, respected. With somewhat sadistic relish Koea despatches the thugs in grisly deaths, and finds a real man for Elaine. A man at least. Middle class values are

Since Koea is so pre-eminently a recorder of the daily lives of women, of the men they encounter, and the lives they fashion for themselves, what does she say about women’s roles as we prepare to enter the 21st century? In the Koea opus not much progress has been made to take women out of male control and set them off on
independent, satisfying paths. Women, independent of men, do not exist. They may be victims, bullied, controlled, exploited, robbed of their substance, but those like Rosalind, who shakes off the terrible James, simply replace one concubinage with another. In Staying Home and Being Rotten, Koea gives us her response to New Right economics: James goes, but enter Bernard, a rich man who has exploited Rosalind for years – all those stories she has had to listen to, the groping hands. He must pay, for “the economic viability of everything has to be considered.” In a purely business proposition, he will pay for sex – and she doesn’t come cheap – and she will be “liberated” to resume her former sideline, dealing in art (ironically to businessmen who need wall coverings for their offices). Is a millionaire sugar-daddy the answer?

Koea’s breed of widows and women alone gradually reveal themselves to be little better than passive victims, colluding at their own entrapment and bogged down in the backwaters of an outmoded gentility. Entrapped by men who are so often merely caricatures – marauders, liars, bullies, prevaricators – the women themselves seem reduced in worth by their choosing such hopeless men on whom to latch.

Bernadette Crichton’s man, laid out so suddenly under the grandiflora, is revealed by the diary he left behind to have been the opposite of all the things Bernadette thought him to be. She had invested so much in a man who was trivial, banal in his fetishes about food and women with large chests, who has enslaved her by his arbitrary rules. Margaret Harris in Sing to me, Dreamer takes off with her elephant to join the circus. We are getting into Enid Blyton country here (Mr Galliano’s Circus), not a workable solution for most of us, but workable if the whole novel has been a wish-fulfilment fantasy, and if Koea expects us to believe a life lived in fantasy is appropriate or the only solution. Stephanie in the latest novel rids herself of the hopeless lover, but she embraces a revised form of her old life as poor relation, living on charity and hand-me-downs. Is a knife the only way out?

Feminism, the progress of women into rewarding positive lives lived with or without a congenial equal partner, has passed Koea’s women by, or they have been so solipsistic, exiled from daily life and tunnel-visioned, that they have never heard of the possibilities. Her women are wilfully dated; they are women who might remember the Liberty Bodice, the stud frock, buttoned gloves, English tweeds, and regret their passing. They are snobbish, preoccupied by ranking, sorting, noting little class markers, and thriving on their ability to note.

Koea’s fiction is ultimately negative and life-denying. It adds up to a way of life which is, as Shakespeare wrote in Macbeth, “cabin’d, cribb’d, confin’d, bound in”. Hence
reading The Lonely Margins of the Sea, if one has read all
that has gone before, becomes simply more of the same depressing theme. It is time to move on.

Heather Murray is a Dunedin writer and critic.

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