The Swing Around
Victoria University Press, $29.95,
There’s a certain anxiety that accompanies writing this review. Embarrassingly, it’s to do with a fear of mixing metaphors (as opposed to, say, starting a sentence with an adverb.) How would one describe the experience of reading an Anderson novel? Is it like being enmeshed in a gossamer web, as it is spun? Like skating and sliding on ice, absorbed and involved in the antics of fellow skaters? Like watching the knitting of a Fair Isle jersey, glimpsing a touch of orange, a hint of red, then some yellow, at the end to see the finished garment? Sensibly, I have decided to forgo the metaphors. To read a Barbara Anderson novel is, quite simply, to put one’s feet up and enjoy.
It’s the sheer smartness of the woman. She knows everything we know, and a lot more besides, and it is our good fortune that the fruits of quite some decades – no need to say how many – of observation have been gathered together between the covers of yet another stylish VUP production. Quite apart from the plot – which is, in a way, neither here nor there – this book is a delicious look at “good women”.
Central to the novel is Molly, and I couldn’t help it, but I just couldn’t stop seeing Mrs Bolger. Not that I know Mrs Bolger personally, other than one very fleeting meeting at the Katherine Mansfield Award ceremony, held in what was then her house, but which was all too soon, unbeknownst to us all, to become Mrs Shipley’s house. I remember how nice she was to me as I inappropriately snatched the moment to tell her to get her husband to smarten up his party’s attitude to health and education.
She promised, a little anxiously, to pass on my concern. But I believe her to be nice in the same way that Anderson’s Molly is nice. For many years the wife of Hamish, a hardworking dairy farmer, Molly is now the wife of the same man, but with a very different role – that of Minister of Cultural Links and Trade (CLAT) for New Zealand. In their dual roles as Minister and Wife of Minister, this novel sees them on a “swing” (a political jaunt) around Malaysia.
The swing around Malaysia seems to be simply a vessel to show off character. Take people out of their normal situations, and you learn a lot about their resilience. Hamish and Molly, and their sidekicks Freddy and Violet, are in a deeply foreign world, while at the same time being cushioned from it by a universal protocol. Freddy and Violet’s story, their growing mutual attraction, is an entertaining subplot.
Molly’s small anxieties, many of which are to do with her new role, are what endear the reader to her:
I’m bad at it. Like kissing. I get it wrong every time. I kiss the ones who don’t want to be kissed and they rear back, and I don’t notice the ones who do want to, all puckered up waiting, and then it’s too late, and if I aim for the right they go to the left, and now people are beginning to do it both sides, and I think that’s awkward unless you’re born to it. I know it’s ridiculous but it worries me. And I never know what to do about lipstick marks either. Do you mop them? If so, how? Especially the men. You can scarcely use spit. Do you just ignore? There must be some way to get it right.
It is impossible not to like this woman. As we see her in various situations, our affection for her grows. Also our confidence in her. This is no bumbling, friendly embarrassment; this is a woman with a sense of place and occasion. Never is this better shown than in the contrast with her daughter Bobby. Bobby, fresh from an unsatisfactory liaison with the share-milker on the family farm, arrives in Malaysia to weep on her mother’s
shoulder. Bobby is “bubbly” personified, a brash, shallow young woman who is easily cheered up, irrespective of the pain of others around her.
An even more enjoyable contrast is found between Molly and the novel’s other good woman, resident saint Bridget. Oh how I crowed with recognition at meeting this woman. Bridget is the (recently) ex-wife of Freddy, who is attached to Hamish as an aide on this trip. Bridget has recently left Freddy to do good works, on a sophisticated level, working with fictional French aid group Humanitaire. Bridget is indeed a cool little number. I know her well. Approach Bridget in a group while she is talking to others, say a bright “hello”, and she will finish her conversation before giving you, you clumsy spaniel, her considered attention. How pleased I was for Freddy that he found Violet – “supportive, tolerant yet crisp, with an eye for absurdities and an ear for gossip.”
It is indeed a novel about people, another Anderson social comedy. I did have quibbles, one of which was why the novel had to be set 20 years ago. It sat somehow uncomfortably for me in the early 1980s, and I found myself questioning small chronological details. Wasn’t the counselling industry in full swing a little later than that? Did boys (as one character recalls) really want to be electronic engineers in 1950? (Was the word “electronic” in common use back then?) The plot too at times felt more a vehicle for the characters than a significant device in itself, though the kidnapping of Freddy and his driver Kamil did make for riveting reading.
But oh, who cares! All the skating around in the first hundred or so pages, all the getting to know the various characters that make up this treat, come together beautifully as one enters the novel proper. I didn’t care how things were being manipulated to fit. I didn’t really care if they didn’t have the word “electronic” back then. I just enjoyed a funny, insightful, humane, intelligent, darn good read.
Linda Burgess is a Wellington writer.