Getting into character, Linda Burgess

Long Hot Summer
Barbara Anderson
Victoria University Press, $29.95,
ISBN 0 86473 371 2

I thought as I was reading this book that for me the most important thing in fiction is character. If a novelist gets the characters right, you can pretty well count on everything else falling into place. If I were to base an entire essay on this premise, then I wouldn’t have to go further than Barbara Anderson’s Long Hot Summer to prove it.

This delectable book is set in the summer of 1936 at Laing’s Point, a tiny settlement of three baches where three families have been coming for years. 1936 is a great year to choose. It’s only 18 years after the end of the First World War – close enough for that to still resonate in the lives of any character who’s not a child. It was the Depression too, though Barbara Anderson is far too clever to take us into sugarbag territory. These people are the lucky ones, the middle classes with the wherewithal to still have beach holidays, albeit in the standard baches of our past – “Mr Rowan’s cottage that we rent is big and bare and made of wood, with bunk rooms and wooden floors. There are lots of spiders and sand in the lavatory like they all have,” says eight-year-old Ann, one of the story’s two narrators.

At the beach that summer are three families. The two narrators, Ann and her mother Lorna, are at the beach with 12-year-old Duncan and 5-year-old Charlie, one of the nicest little boys to come out of a novel for some time. Indeed, they are three terrific children. Left behind at home to join them at the weekends is the father of the two younger children, Derek. Lorna is a firework waiting to be lit, a restless woman with a gap in her life that she wants filled, though she’s not sure by what. It’s the thought of change that appeals: “I will make a change. I would like a change.” Derek is good, kind, but boringly predictable: “My husband Derek Hopkins is not here. He works in town during the week but he will be here on Friday, as the night the day. Nothing is surer on God’s earth or beyond. Nothing.” The reader already knows that Derek is not always predictable. A conservative, straight man he may be but he has knowingly married Lorna in the early weeks of a pregnancy. The man she loves who has fathered the baby has committed suicide. Derek is scrupulous in his equal treatment of the three children, and one of the strengths of the book is the depiction of Lorna slowly seeing with fresh eyes the man she has somewhat ruthlessly married.

Anderson has a wicked eye for the peccadilloes of marriage. Lorna comments that in their marriage it is understood that Derek is not witty:

Derek, you see, has no sense of humour. It is one of the tenets by which we have lived. He can do fun and comfort of all kinds, and loyalty and faithfulness and love, but not jokes. He said so himself, long ago. We have never discussed the topic since.

It is only now, this summer … that I have been wondering whether the latent talent Derek does have for delight in the ridiculous, for pleasure in the minor absurdities of life, might not have blossomed in a more favourable environment.

It’s not only Derek whom Lorna sees with fresh eyes. The summer holiday begins with Lorna feeling lust for another of the beach’s summer residents, James Clements. The Clements family is another of the pure joys in this book. Picky, haughty, grande dame Mrs Clements has long dismissed her daughter Isabel as unappealing and unattractive, possibly unable to make an even halfway decent match. She is cheered by the arrival of Angus, an Englishman who knows there’s more to choosing a future mate than how she looks. Fortunately, Isabel has not been completely squashed by her mother’s notions of attractiveness – despite a less than favourable environment, she manages to flourish and to choose her own path.

Handsome, dashing James with his glamorous notion of using the locals to make a majestically trivial film – Lust in the Dust – appeals to the romantic in Lorna: “Why are there no chivalrous heroes in books now? The War I suppose, the disillusionment and despair for men who died like cattle.Mixed with Lorna’s growth of awareness of the worth of Derek is her moment of realising what an idiot James is, as he confesses he is endlessly searching for the perfect woman: “‘I have always known,’ he says eventually, ‘that the woman I love must be more than beautiful, must look and be perfect at all times. Someone who can look both divine in tweeds and melting in evening clothes.’” It is such a satisfying pleasure to share that moment with her. Human foibles – not only is Anderson ruthless in her depiction of them, she is generous enough to give her favourite characters sufficient insight to deal with them. Such lesser mortals as James and Mrs Clements get their desserts.

Change – and, indeed, equivocation – is a recurring theme in the book. In a glorious metaphor for what little control we really have over our situation, we are taken back to the earthquake of a previous summer, when the community is thrown into upheaval by the total unpredictability of nature. Nothing is constant. Laing’s Point, which seems to promise endless summer holidays, is shown to be Maori land and two of the families may no longer be able to use it. In a neat parallel with the changing nature of the land’s ownership is the decision of the father of the third family at the beach – Harry Laing – to reclaim his Maori heritage and become Hare Henare, his name before being adopted by his Pakeha Laing stepfather. Harry’s mother is known to have been a Maori princess – of course, as one of the characters says, Maori women who marry white men always are. This means, to the envy of the Hopkins’ children, that their adored friend Miriama Laing, most popular girl in the class, has now got a foot in Maoridom and is accepted by the local Maori in a way they know they never can be.

This is a very neatly structured book. It is indeed classic Jane Austen. There are no real surprises: as in James Clements’ film, good triumphs over evil, the romantic hero wins his bride, the good, patient man keeps his. But it is an utterly satisfying read. It is the sheer depth of the characterisation, the enviably masterful handling of dialogue. The people, the people, the people. It would be so much easier to review if I could pick away at its little faults. But dammit. It has none.

Linda Burgess is a Palmerston North novelist and writer. Her memoir Allons Enfants is to be published in May by Longacre Press.

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