Quiet successes, Elizabeth Caffin

Good at Geography
Jane Westaway
Penguin, $24.95, ISBN 0 14 029142 3

The Company of a Daughter
Paddy Richardson
Steele Roberts, $24.95, ISBN 0 95 837128 8

Across the Dreaming Night
Judith White
Vintage, $24.95, ISBN 1 86941 412 8

In the rich proliferation of fiction in New Zealand over the last fifteen years, there have been the big bangs – Hulme, Duff, Knox – but many quiet successes too. These are important because they provide the context in which talent develops and readers grow. The whole field has become more professional, simply more competent, no longer awed or self-conscious, a confidence quickly sensed and encouraged by publishers and readers.

These three writers are publishing their first adult novel after previous experience with short stories or fiction for children; their background shows, in both confidence and technique. Sustaining a fiction over the span of a novel is difficult and demanding, and the transition to this form from the briefer story is not necessarily a natural one though always urged by publishers; each of these writers does it gracefully, thickening and elaborating the fictional context in this country. However, there is a sense in all of them of the boldness and seriousness of this new step, in, for example, their very deliberate attention to structure, with blocks of time and different stories playing pointedly against each other, the bones sticking out.

In addition, both Jane Westaway’s Good at Geography and Paddy Richardson’s The Company of a Daughter appear to carry the strong autobiographical force so common to first novels. Both concern the growth towards identity and independence of a central female character in ways that comment obliquely but clearly on the changing role of women. Both reach some kind of resolution that may be personal as well as fictional.

In Westaway’s novel, Isobel migrates from England to New Zealand with her family as a teenager – so that growing up and adjusting to a new land are parallel experiences. Rejecting the mother country and rejecting the mother are curiously entwined so that Isobel’s definitive refusal to return three years later with her disappointed family – by getting pregnant and married (in that order) – is a declaration of where she wants to be, who she is and what she thinks of her parents’ values. But wait: problems with parents all too easily turn into problems with partners and it is not until Isobel escapes farmer/husband and father figure/lover and is on her own with child and gay flatmate that she can make the return trip to England and recognise where her life is.

In one sense this is a comedy of manners, and its picture of the encounter between the genteel, middle-class, middle-aged parents and the looser, lewder world of New Zealand teenage life in the late 1960s is wonderful farce. Westaway’s accounts of adolescent sex in the suburbs are very funny as well as being tough and perceptive writing. She shows a barely disguised savagery in her treatment of Isobel’s origins but there is nothing sentimental about her approach to New Zealand society, in which the men are always “killing something for tomorrow”. The ironic, detached mode of narration prominent especially in the first half of the book provides with considerable skill both point and pleasure to the reader. Westaway’s use of language as a weapon, its sheer vigour and order, conveys a pervasive meaning. There is an intelligent analytic mind here with a deft tart wit but one feels that at times the fictionality is being maintained only with difficulty and that the text might at any moment leap off into a rather stylish journalism.

It seems to me that the control of tone is less sure later in the book; the scene in which Isobel makes love with Adrian, the wimpish real estate agent, and various explorations of the meaning of love carry less power and conviction. One can see the point: that in becoming a parent and wife Isobel assumes all the failings and guilt of the earlier generation (“I’m a mother now so everything will always be my fault”); but the sombreness and seriousness of this realisation is less easy for the novelist to handle. In the brief final section though, back with mother and England, she is happily in control.

Paddy Richardson’s novel also explores the disintegrating family structure of the late 20th century, the decisions about unexpected pregnancies and failing marriages, and the relationships between mothers and daughters. It is in some ways the most ambitious of these three novels, and to my mind the least successful. Here too the self-discovery of the central character Zoe is expressed through geography, in this case a journey from Christchurch to the Hokianga; but also through history, as she recalls the stories of four generations of women in her family: Grace her mother, Evie her grandmother who plays the classic wise grandmotherly role, and the two she never knew, Hannah and Eliza. Simply as a piece of engineeering, the novelist has to keep hold of all these stories, play out subtly the patterns between them, and hang on to the foreground contemporary story of Zoe, her painful personal dilemma and its resolution.

Richardson makes a brave try but she never overcomes the reader’s tendency to get confused among the five women’s stories, which are presented in different forms and occur in different places. And she resorts too often to telling instead of revealing. On the first page, for example, she writes in Zoe’s voice, “All I know is that my life, despite my son, my lover and that occupation I used to call my career, seems hollow and the idea for this journey has nudged and pursued me.” This kind of instruction, so unenticing to a reader, is matched by a saccharine sentimentality on certain subjects (like mothers and daughters) and a rather blatant satire on others (like middle-class Christchurch). If I am being hard on this novel, one which is after all a pleasant enough way of passing an afternoon, it is because it seems too written to order: it lacks a compelling imaginative vision.

It is the imaginative vision that is so striking in Judith White’s Across the Dreaming Night, a novel that moves into different territory. It is true that this novel too has elements of female self-discovery and of social comment but at its centre is something powerful, mysterious, even unworldly: the love of the youth Matt for a foundling baby. His devotion to the baby, Dylana, rescued from an accident, concealed, cared for and eventually buried, is an obsession, a neurosis which can surely be seen to have social and psychological sources in Matt’s troubled adolescence: this is how his brother Scott and Scott’s girlfriend Fritha see it. But White writes about this strange emotion with a tenderness and inner sympathy that extends it beyond mere explanation, that allows it not to be fully understood, to be in the end deeply haunting and moving:

Matt makes the tea and toast and brings it over to the table. Two plates, two knives, two cups. Honey and Marmite and butter. The baby in the bedroom, suddenly quiet. There is a desperation within him for this scenario; there is a deep longing that this is more than just a hope, but a foreknowledge, a sense of the inevitability of it, as if he were a caterpillar crawling to the steady branch, anticipating the splitting skin, the sleeping growth of wings, the first ungainly flight. He has no doubt that what he has here is the certain outcome of his life.

You notice the careful attention to banal detail – in other passages the baby’s sleeping, eating and clothing arrangements are all described precisely – and the way in which the boy’s certainty of vision is given the same clarity and validity. White’s patient sureness of style, resisting obvious effects, continues as this strange relationship reaches its tragic and perhaps inevitable end, and as Matt makes a final appearance delivering a lamb on a snowy hillside. He remains unknown, puzzling, open to our interpretation.

This novel also operates on other levels. The story of Matt and Dylana sits inside a larger story, that of her father Quentin and his search for the baby he calls Georgia, another yearning. Matt has after all committed a crime and deprived a father of his only child. Besides the fascination with Matt, the novel is simultaneously driven onwards by the prospect of public discovery and the painful plight of Quentin. White, however, is not interested in writing a detective story and though teasing us with this possibility – several people see Matt and the baby, some of them distinctly suspicious at this unlikely pair – no policeman is seen or heard and the baby’s fate never revealed. Her focus is always on emotional rather than logical patterns and Quentin’s loss is interspersed, though sparingly, with Matt’s dedication. Quentin, damaged in mind and body by the accident, is the link, “across the dreaming night”, between the two narrative threads, the two timeframes of the novel.

Clamped somewhat awkwardly around the novel’s emotional core is “Charlotte’s Story”, sections at beginning and end told in the first person by a young hairdresser, yearning, she too, but for her dead father. The clumsiness of the style and tone are presumably deliberate, contrasting with the rest of the book and suitable for the narrator, but the emotional impact of this situation is less strong, perhaps because these characters are not given the space to breathe fully. The twist at the book’s end, unexpected though actually skilfully planned earlier, appears to be a solution to the emotional emptiness of a father and a daughter, but it is over-designed. Even Charlotte doubts it, expressing her author’s discomfort with easy and simple answers: “It’s become a habit, you see. To love the other one who is unobtainable. The perfect one who will always be smiling and innocent and beautiful and floating just out of reach.”

White, unlike Westaway and Richardson, works most comfortably with dreams, fantasies, deliriums, images, symbols, the pictures and stories through which longings, fears and hopes take form. Sometimes she overdoes it (the ubiquitous hawk in this novel) but often her ability to suggest complexity, uncertainty, intensity through the concrete, the visual, the everyday, makes her work at its best compelling.

Within the blue covers of these three novels lies clear evidence of the current health of New Zealand fiction: none disappoints, though, it has to be said, none streaks out in front to change the face of the genre either. But the Montana judges were right: in Across the Dreaming Night they picked the best of this bunch for their short list.

Elizabeth Caffin is Director of Auckland University Press.

Across the Dreaming Night is shortlisted in the fiction section of the 2000 Montana New Zealand Book Awards.

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