Victoria University Press, $29.95,
ISBN 0 86473 384 4
In the pool of New Zealand writers who have achieved success in the literary spotlight, Catherine Chidgey has made a big splash. Her award-winning first novel, In a fishbone church, set the foundations of a growing reputation. “A wonderful new talent,” raved one critic; “marks the beginning of what promises to be a glorious literary career.” Just two years after the first, her second novel, Golden Deeds, has appeared. So, we find ourselves asking, were the critics right? Does this novel live up to the promise of the first?
In a word, yes.
Golden Deeds is stylish and it is beautiful. Like all books, it has its faults, but it also has depth, poetry and warmth. It’s literature.
The novel explores the way in which lives interconnect. On one side of the world is Patrick, an English medievalist who devotes his life to preserving illuminated manuscripts. On the other side of the world is the New Zealander Colette, a history student who receives a letter informing her that Patrick is in a coma as the result of an accident. The mystery? She has no idea who he is. Meanwhile, Colette takes a job babysitting the young son of her landlords Ruth and Malcolm, and discovers that the couple once had a daughter who went missing without trace…
Like its predecessor, Golden Deeds jumps backwards and forwards in time and place. In In a fishbone church, this was confusing. At times, the book read more like a series of short stories than a unified whole. Golden Deeds handles the demands of its structure much better. The reader is disoriented, but not bewildered. Clever links and excellent pacing make the transition from scene to scene easier. And this time, Chidgey is more convincing in suggesting that the structure is essential to the book’s main theme. Just as Colette must work out where Patrick fits in, just as Ruth and Malcolm try to reconstruct what happened to their daughter, just as Patrick attempts to make sense of his life, so too must we as readers piece together the fragments of narrative for ourselves. And by requiring this of us, Chidgey ensures that we experience first-hand what the novel is all about: the human need to make things connect.
It’s not only Chidgey’s characters and readers who make connections, of course; the author plays her part as well. In In a fishbone church, the link weaving together the strands of story was one of blood: the main characters were all members of the same family. In Golden Deeds, some of the characters never even meet. But where Chidgey’s characters may not be related, her metaphors always are. The book is held together by a network of images which occur again and again in a myriad of different ways. It’s a sign of a good writer that every event, every gesture, every observation may be read on more than one level. Allusions should of course remain subtle, and there are occasions in the book when the use of imagery, especially that of light and dark, becomes a little heavy-handed. But for the most part, Chidgey’s skill as a weaver of words is admirable. Blood and bone, teeth and flesh and hair are linked to the paper-and-ink world of books, which is linked to the natural world of flowers and birds, earth and water, which is linked to the world beyond – to the sun and the moon, religion, time and death – all of which is linked, once again, to blood and bone, teeth and flesh and hair… And if this is starting to make your head spin, then that’s part of the point. Most of the detective work in this story is performed by the reader. If we are to cope with the passage of time and find meaning in our lives, suggests Chidgey, then we need to reconstruct them by delving into the past. A lot of digging goes on in this book; a lot of reproduction; a lot of building. Piece by piece, the author builds up her novel like the components of the Meccano set that figures so largely in it. It’s not designed to be a faithful reproduction. It wobbles; it has holes. It’s temporary and fragile and, in this, it’s very much like life.
Chidgey’s portrayal of the vulnerability of human beings is particularly moving. Like Patrick’s illuminated manuscripts, we are susceptible to the passage of time, to light. Danger lurks everywhere – in the sun, the water, the earth. And yet, these are precisely the elements we need if we are to “illuminate” the past by telling our stories – these are the ingredients for paper and ink.
In prose so gentle that it sings the author describes the gradual wearing-down and fading-out of life. A soap in the shape of a mermaid dissolves, a crystal melts in the rain. All that seems to be left are shadows, shapes, insubstantial clues: fingers leave prints on glass or trace patterns in condensation, spores cluster “like Braille on the underside of a fern.” And then, piece by piece, Chidgey begins to build it all up again, and we find ourselves returning to the question of structure.
The Meccano-like construction of the novel is not without disadvantages. Because there are so many characters in so many different times and places, and because the pieces are linked mainly by motif, a uniformity of tone is required to hold it all together. While this gives the book a sense of wholeness, it also marks the characters with a certain sameness. I can’t quite “see” Colette, Ruth or Malcolm, and it’s hard to reconcile the young Patrick with the older version. The network of symbols knitting the characters together becomes so tight at times that it threatens to smother them.
The book’s prose-style is admirably unsentimental, measured and succinct. But there are occasions when it seems a little too careful, too detached. A great deal of excellent research has gone into this book, but one gets the feeling that the characters have been “researched” just as thoroughly. This book does not take risks, nor are there many surprises. Because the novel opens with the letter informing Colette that Patrick is in a coma, we already know that his car is going to crash. The same goes for the housefire he causes as a boy. What the book gains in style, it loses in dramatic tension.
It may seem strange that the only characters who really appear to come to life are the three deliberately left “unfilled”: the anonymous murderer, the missing daughter Laura, who is dead, and Ruth and Malcolm’s young son, who never grows up. This is because these characters remain more or less constant, while the others are shown in such a whirl of kaleidoscopic colours that only the pattern, not the substance, emerges: like the photos of Patrick’s mother taken when she is moving too fast, they blur. This said, one has to remember that nothing occurs by accident in Golden Deeds. If its characters, like its title, tend towards the obscure, then this is probably deliberate. Moreover, the impression left by the three “unfinished” characters only serves to illustrate one of Chidgey’s main themes: that this same emptiness – the holes of life, the silhouettes, the broken pieces – is what initiates the construction of meaning. After all, the void is the novelist’s domain. As the gravedigger puts it, “Not many people … made a living by creating empty space.”
If the reader feels like stopping constantly to congratulate Chidgey on her handiwork, then that, too, is part of the plan. Not only is she aware of the deficiencies of her chosen structure, she incorporates them into her themes. Patrick’s father remarks of a Meccano set: “Not particularly comprehensive, but a good basic selection of parts.” Harsh criticism, this – too harsh for a novel which is both complex and beautiful. It’s not until near the end of the book that the author appears to declare her intentions. Readers could be forgiven for hearing Chidgey’s own voice in Colette, who is planning to write about Laura, the missing girl. She decides that her account would not be sensationalist; any colourful speculation would be tempered with facts, cool statistics. Colette would keep things balanced. There would be a spread of light and shadow, a little vitriol. She wouldn’t rush into it. She would allow the story to thicken, to form its own skin. And then she would make Laura shine.
And this is precisely what Chidgey has done. Despite the book’s holes – or perhaps because of them – she has created a “golden deed” all of her own; a piece of literature solid enough to occupy a permanent site on New Zealand’s literary landscape. Sharp till the end, she says it herself: it will “probably sell very well.”
Sally Sutton is an Auckland fiction writer and reviewer.