Three Pretty Widows
Finding Tom Connor
Black Swan, $24.95,
It was a pleasure to find that the author of The Heart’s Wild Surf (1996) and The Whistler (1998) has produced another accomplished piece of writing, a poignant illustration of human nature at its most destructive and most resilient.
“Until his father had put him on the farm immediately after their marriage, he’d had no experience of real unhappiness,” reflects Myra of her husband. “Perhaps that was why he was a man of so little faith. This thought occurred to Myra easily, the truth of it slipping across her mind like butter across a hot pan, but in its wake she was seared with guilt and pain: a man who knew no sadness, no suffering, had no need of God.”
Stephanie Johnson’s latest novel begins in 1898, when William McQuiggan – tormented, frustrated, violent and desperately seeking salvation – abandons New Zealand, his wife and his newly born twins to follow a Mormon preacher. Myra, his timid Australian-born wife, reluctantly follows, first to Salt Lake City, Utah, and later to Zion City, Illinois. The godless man has developed a compulsive obsession with godliness, squandering his responsibilities while he searches for a religion that he can make idiosyncratically his own. Bound to end in tears. “It is an error of the greatest magnitude to assume that God favours you in any way, above any other of his creatures,” warned his father. “That way lies egotism, even madness.”
Myra, in contrast, is almost bereft of ego. An orphan (whom William married for reasons known only to himself), she is the sort of person who doesn’t reflect much on her lot, regarding her own thoughts to be of little interest to herself or anyone else. As William begins to self-destruct, she grows from timid and bullied woman into a determined, resilient mother of six.
At heart this is a story about a marriage, a patient and enduring love and the contradictory nature of desire. Early on in the book, Myra’s husband has beaten her, burned down her house and left her in a small Northern farming settlement. And yet:
Memory sprang from her body, bringing her his coarse-haired flanks, the smell of his sweat, the warmth and weight of him. When he had taken her in the bush she had given him that sudden caress, the length of her fingers against the flesh of his neck, scooping the firm curves to his shoulder. She had wanted him.
But then there’s that other memory of “how he forced himself onto her while she wavered on a knife edge of hysteria and fear”. Johnson is very good at capturing that intense tide that drags two people together, that which reason won’t explain.
In case you thought this was about the transcendent power of love, it isn’t. Love – desire, passion, whatever you call it – doesn’t conquer all. It is nonetheless profound. Toward the end of the book, Myra wonders what she would see if she read the book of William: “She would see it all as he had seen it, laid out in chapters, and perhaps she would come to understand him. Will she forgive him then, she wonders? In Heaven, are understanding and forgiveness one and the same?”
If life doesn’t end happily ever after, perhaps the best you can hope for is some kind of understanding. That isn’t so bad. Johnson has written an excellent book, its characters presented with melancholy compassion, its meaning told with quiet, precise language. This is fiction drawn from human lives, not exactly uplifting, but surprisingly comforting.
“Don’t get mad, get even,” warns old Jocasta at the beginning of Three Pretty Widows. Barbara Else’s most recent novel begins with the death of Barnaby Rivers, which provokes various consequences in the lives of three pretty women. Bella, Barnaby’s estranged wife and only vaguely aware of her beauty, is trying to get over the guilt of leaving her husband and on with the business of falling in love with Eliot. At 50, Barnaby’s friend Ruth is still strikingly pretty but considering a face-lift. (While her husband of 29 years still wrestles with the paranoia of an ordinary man who managed to catch a gorgeous wife.)
Then there is Jocasta herself, old and frail but once the prettiest girl around, who has lived her life as only the prettiest girls can. That is, by doing precisely what she wants to do. Her relevance to the story is revealed later in the book, so I won’t say what that is here. Hovering above them all is Barnaby, who isn’t sure whether he is an angel, a ghost, or stuck in purgatory: “It’s no fun, feeling impotent. What the hell use is it when you can’t steer your spirit in the afterlife? I don’t feel like a ghost. Am I supposed be an angel then? Angels can’t fuck. If I am one, I’m fucked up.”
The narrative skips from shoulder to shoulder, weaving in plenty of allusions to fairytales, old-wives’ tales, and tales from Greek mythology along the way. Else’s style is cool, unsentimental and smart. Unfortunately, the characters – including the dead guy – never quite come to life. It’s as if there are too many of them, spread too thinly – they become indistinct from one another. According to the blurb on the back, Barnaby’s death catapults everyone toward crisis. Perhaps I wasn’t paying enough attention, but I didn’t really notice.
It seems a little unfair to be reviewing Finding Tom Connor in this context, but if the publishers considered it worth sending a review copy to New Zealand Books, then so be it. Sarah-Kate Lynch has, I suppose, achieved what she set out to do: write a light, frothy love story which has as much connection to truth as an ad for toffee pops.
Molly Brown has just found out that her fiancé is a philandering rake. Donning her $4000 wedding dress and a pair of boots, she takes off to Ireland with the glamorously scary Aunt Vivian in search of a long-lost uncle. Once in Ireland, there are overtones of Waking Ned Devine and other feel-good Irish movies whose names I can’t remember, featuring quaint locals who prey – in the most benevolent way – on nostalgically-inclined tourists.
Make up your own mind. This comes from the opening paragraphs: “When Molly bent down to slip the garter belt over her boot, two crappy things happened. First, her left boob popped out of her wedding dress and, next, the shoes of the man she was about to marry ruined her life.” Lynch is a columnist, and uses the language that has been popular among women columnists of late, which was probably pioneered by Julie Burchill. Once it was punchy in its novelty – Burchill got/gets away with it brilliantly, mostly because her ideas are original. But it’s a faddish writing style which, like most fads, becomes irritating with overuse. And Lynch’s jokes tend to be a little laboured – sometimes just wrong. One tourist, having just returned from Ireland, remarks on the beauty of Ireland: “I just don’t know what old Frank McCourt was on about.” She says this in 1990, but Angela’s Ashes wasn’t published until 1996.
Clearly Lynch wanted to create the kind of character that you get in a Kathy Lette or a Helen Fielding book: nice girl goes bonkers, drinks like fish, speaks mind with brash abandon – and can’t help enchanting those around her including Mr Right. If you like that sort of thing, fine. They sell toffee pops, don’t they?
Margo White is literary editor for Grace magazine.