Otago University Press, $24.95,
ISBN 1 877133 77 9
ISBN 1 86950 317 1
Genre can be a tool or a trap. By the time a particular predicament has been exploited often enough to constitute a recognisable genre in fiction, it also runs the risk of eliciting an adverse reaction – “not another rite of passage/ woman alone/ spiritual journey/ family history novel” – to its potential predictability. Bronwyn Tate’s second novel and Adrienne Jansen’s first employ all of the generic patterns I’ve listed, among others; but both of them make the conventions work to advantage, setting up a resonant context into which they insert their work, but avoiding predictability, with compelling results.
Both novels show us a female protagonist negotiating a difficult patch, undergoing a significant transition in her life, via largely private, unofficial rites of passage. Anna, the central figure in Spirit Writing, leaves her rural home to live independently in a big city (unnamed, but decidedly reminiscent of Wellington). In Russian Dolls Isla reverses this symbolic journey – she returns home to semi-rural suburbia and her mother’s house, after a succession of relationships and a long period away. Both women have been scarred by domestic traumas, and each of the novels charts a process of recovery and partial reconciliation.
That the process is partial, imperfect, is important. Both authors resist obvious or overly neat resolutions. They write with an eye to the ordinary untidiness, the banal messiness of life as it is lived. In Russian Dolls especially, there is a fruitful tension between story and reality, which serves to critique the genre even while participating in it.
Both writers flirt with cliché when they set their protagonists to exploring their (comparatively recent) family histories, so ubiquitous has the device become. The way the blurb on both books dwelt on it made me think, I confess, “Not again!” The emphasis proved to have been misleading in both cases, especially in that of Spirit Writing. Perhaps my reaction was untypical, but it interests me that this element was plainly regarded as the principal selling point of both novels, regardless of its relative importance in each. This reflects I think a current vogue for valuing the imaginative reconstruction of other times and realities, above the exploration of present ones; and I am bothered not by the taste in itself, but by the implicit belittlement of commentary upon contemporary society. Russian Dolls does both very well, and it would seem a shame to neglect its tart social observation just because the historical reconstruction against which it is set is temporarily a more fashionable mode of fiction.
The story of “the first Isla” – the heroine’s great-aunt – and her wartime romance is not apparently central to the plot of Russian Dolls. Isla the Second discovers and reads her great-aunt’s letters while she awaits her mother’s return from hospital, and tries to variously confront or distract herself from unfinished business in her own life, and especially from the recent disappearance of her teenage daughter. The epistolary romance is used artfully – for its inherent interest, which is considerable; and for parallels with the life of the younger Isla, which find echoes down several generations. To say much more here would be to spoil the plot, throughout which a low-key suspense is skilfully built up. The art is in the careful limiting of the scope of the parallels, so they serve to suggest not so much remarkable coincidence as the contagious ubiquity of certain banal predicaments and influences. The elegant unfolding of the plot, interweaving – intricately and unhurriedly – the second Isla’s present, her recent past and the stories of her aunt and mother, was for me the great pleasure of this book.
For all their noted similarities, these two novels are finally more different than alike. I feel less constrained to protect the secrets of the plot of Spirit Writing, but also less tempted to reveal them, simply because it is a much less plot-driven book. Certainly things happen, interesting things: a story of romance, politics and intergenerational and intercultural relations devolves gracefully, but without a significant component of suspense. We are made to wonder, not what will happen – it is mostly unsurprising, and is usually signalled well in advance – but how it will affect the fragile, damaged consciousness of Anna. The story is less about her doings than about her inward reconstruction of herself into someone capable of functioning in a world conspicuously lacking in “plotted” qualities of certainty or tidiness.
The story is told to us almost entirely from Anna’s point of view. She and the book move unassertively, quietly through the processes of establishing a life and a network of relationships – with her outspoken, irascible grandmother; with a charismatic, driven priest; and with an enigmatic Laotian refugee, Kam Sy. Anna is caught up in the social, political and spiritual interactions of this curiously assorted group. Along the way she finds the beginnings of independence and a sense of her own worth.
If the story, thus summarised, sounds like something out of the 1970s, its telling is nevertheless persuasive, and remarkably free of moral or political sententiousness, and cliché. Jansen essays territory where clichés and glib righteousness are ever-present hazards, especially for inexperienced writers. She avoids these hazards by having both Anna and the omniscient narrator refrain from interpreting singularly or dogmatically. Political scrupulousness never slides into a belligerent political correctness.
Cross-cultural encounters repeatedly spring gently comic surprises on Anna, and any reader who shares her preconceptions. There is a lovely moment when she comes upon Kam Sy cutting and selling quill pens, and asks him where he learnt the art of making them. His reply? “From a library book.” Kam Sy’s reticence is used to prod quietly at the clichés of Orientalism. Anna repeatedly asks him to translate his name, and gets different answers every time. The comic extravagance of the final version makes her realise that she is being teased amiably for her assumption that names in other cultures must do more than name.
Anna’s lack of confidence and the vulnerability of her psyche are rendered persuasively, but just occasionally I got fed up with her passive openness, which makes her seem fey. Her small bare sentences can be infuriatingly non-committal, and sometimes the dialogue can get mired in indeterminate “don’t knows”, “mights” and “maybes”. In general, the dialogue is not the book’s strong point, tending to a rather stony, polished baldness. It lacks the raggedness of real conversation, but also the compensating vigour which literary contrivance can impart. It achieves animation mainly in set pieces, where a character is moved to indignation and allowed to hold forth uninterrupted.
The great strength and distinctive character of Spirit Writing lie in the narration. Jansen diverts the skills she has honed as poet into the evocation of place and atmosphere, and of the interior life of the mind and spirit, endowing words and images with poetic resonance. I hesitate to use words like “spirit” or “spiritual”, especially as a priest and a church figure large in this book, for fear that I might put off readers disinclined to belief; but I can’t think of another way of characterising the territory Jansen explores. She does not presume religious belief in the reader – or, for that matter, attribute it to most of her characters. Spiritual matters are understood broadly and undogmatically; emotional health and moral confidence are scrutinised from a Buddhist and diverse Christian perspectives; but the prevailing emphasis is ultimately poetic.
Jansen creates resonant clusters of symbols out of the ordinary materials the story places at hand, enlarging rather than constraining understandings. Meaning and importance accrue gradually, in a way that tends to naturalise the symbols rather than charge them with artifice. For instance, another little cross-cultural comedy introduces the idea of (Buddhist) “walking meditation”. Explanations stall at an absurdly literal point – the idea of “putting one foot in front of the other”– but various significances hover suggestively. Anna remembers the priest having used the phrase with a particular metaphorical significance; and when it recurs much later, as a conventional, almost banal figure for tackling life patiently, it reverberates with these echoes, and with literal echoes of the difficulties two characters have had in walking because of ill-health.
The imagery imparts a delicate poetic overtone to what remains a plainly-told tale. Perhaps readers who do not respond to poetry may find this precious, an impediment to their enjoying the book; but the book leaves me with an abiding impression of simplicity and restraint – while it is poetic, there is nothing purple about Jansen’s limpid prose.
The narrative method of Russian Dolls is about as different as it could be. The dialogue is more convincing – perhaps because it is concerned often with outright conflict rather than the tentative explorations of Spirit Writing. Overt behaviour and private thought processes are represented with a robust sense of human frailty, tending to tart, subdued comedy that borders on satire. It is softened into something gentler by a sense that folly is forgivable because predictable and unavoidable. Where Jansen’s approach was contemplative, Tate’s is vigorously active; there is more action, and action is more central to the whole project, driving the shapely plot and energising the complex time-scheme. The tools of narration – changes in tense, modulations of style, variations in sentence structure, and so on – are manipulated expertly and effectively.
However, a curious flaw marred my initial reading of Russian Dolls. The opening follows Isla’s thoughts as the details of her old home-town, to which she is returning, impact on her. Isla as she is introduced to us is not at all likeable; she doesn’t like herself, and one has the impression that Tate doesn’t much like her either. There is no reason a character shouldn’t be an idealistic counter-culture prig with a contempt for suburban architecture, who, in the book’s own words, inspires in others “an overwhelming desire to yawn”. Or why they should be liked or likeable. But Isla almost immediately ceases to be the person we meet on the bus in the first few pages; we are soon implicitly asked to like her, and, since her superciliousness towards other people’s garden ornaments soon vanishes without trace, to do so without difficulty. Something happens like the process by which a new character in a TV series settles down and rounds out from the inevitable caricature of the first episodes.
Television scriptwriters cannot go back and correct that initial sketchiness, but a novelist can. It seems that Tate changed her mind about Isla, or grew quickly to see her possibilities as a more rounded and temperate character, but did not amend those opening pages accordingly. They are only a few pages, but, being the first few, they are crucial to a reader’s impressions. They struck me as inept, yet minutes later I was beginning to marvel at the assurance of Tate’s touch and the sharpness of her observation. I have gone back to them, and they still grate – in ways that some editorial attention could so easily have prevented.
This is a small quibble, and my only reservation about what is otherwise a rich, vigorous and compelling novel, exhibiting imaginative power and considerable technical range and dexterity.
Janet Hughes is a Wellington writer and critic.