Rough around the edges, Phil Kawana

Camilla Vanilla 
Nick Hyde
Vintage, $24.95,
ISBN 1869414519

The Gospel @ccording to Cole 
Rhonda Bartle
Cape Catley, $24.95,
ISBN 0908561830

A good cover should draw you towards a book, and the covers of both these novels do just that. The Gospel @ccording to Cole draws you in by engaging your curiosity – just what is the link between the woman, the map of Texas, and the title? Camilla Vanilla works differently, by evoking the hazy warmth of an Aegean paradise. Both books are appealing to look at, inside and out. For this, the publishers, the printers, the designers, and the typesetters all deserve credit. Sadly, though, there is still truth to the old cliché about not judging a book by its cover.

To put it simply, Nick Hyde’s Camilla Vanilla is bad. Very bad. Great to look at, but a shame I had to read it. It’s all about Martin, a somewhat innocuous man on holiday in Greece who doesn’t seem to do much of anything except lust after Camilla – tourist, icecream vendor and all-round blonde wet dream. The jacket blurb describes Camilla Vanilla as “the definitive novel for anyone who has ever watched the world through half-closed eyes” – which was pretty much the state my eyes were in by the end of the first chapter.

Periodically, there are hints that Nick Hyde can actually write, but he ruins it all with his incessant (and excruciating) puns such as “A Scandinavian couple nearby giggle in Norse code”. There’s nothing wrong with puns when they’re used judiciously, but Hyde seems more intent on mauling us with his cleverness. He yaps on and on like a particularly irritating little dog. Did the editor ever suggest to him that he should ease back a bit, and did Hyde cease yapping long enough to listen? Instead, he comes across with all the subtlety and finesse of a rabid chihuahua.

Hyde does at times manage to get across a languid, sun-drenched feeling, but his characters are languid to the point of being semi-comatose. When I’m reading, I expect to find a character somewhere who either intrigues or engages me in some way. My reaction to Hyde’s characters, however, was one of rampant indifference. This was no doubt fuelled by his hero’s torpidity.

There’s also something leering and distasteful about the portrayal of Camilla Vanilla herself. A 23-year-old Danish bombshell may get the mid-lifer’s blood pumping, but she comes across more like a caricature from a cheap stroke mag than a real person. For example:

She lies belly-up, nipples like fruitgums, earphones plugged to her brain. Mozart? Dolly Parton? Ned’s Atomic Dustbin? Bow Wow Wow?

“Camilla…”

Up she rears, twisting herself free of her handcuffs, grinding buttery buttocks into the sand. “Go away! You’ve got to go away!”

As ejaculations go this one seems somewhat premature.

 

And so on. I found the rest of his characters equally unattractive. Perhaps that’s the point and I’m missing it. Perhaps other people will read this book and relate to it, be able to recognise characters and situations and enjoy themselves. As for me, I’d rather have a tooth pulled (which I did in the course of reading this book).

2

The Gospel @ccording to Cole is streets ahead of Camilla Vanilla, but it’s also a flawed novel. It has some lovely moments, and its characters are far more engaging. There is none of Nick Hyde’s desperate need to impress here. Rhonda Bartle tells her story simply and quietly, but nonetheless effectively. At times it feels a bit like an early draft of a Linda Burgess novel, and this is perhaps indicative of two of its major failings. Namely, that it isn’t terribly original, and that it’s still a little too rough around the edges.

E-mail romances may seem an idea ripe for the picking, but it’s one that’s been used a few times already, and Bartle doesn’t appear to have anything new to add. Personally (and I think this may be intentional on Bartle’s part), I was far more interested in the relationship between heroine Rebecca and her in-the-flesh partner Ross than in the possibility of her getting it together with John Cole, the Virtual Texan. This novel isn’t a will they? / won’t they? so much as a why might she? It is when she’s dwelling inside Rebecca’s head that Bartle is at her best, if at times a tad too earnest.

Rebecca is a writer, seemingly from a background similar to that of Bartle herself. In some ways that’s a good thing – Rebecca certainly comes across as a fully-fledged and believable individual. However, there is something eerily voyeuristic about reading this novel. It’s as if we’ve sat down with a complete stranger who’s proceeded to tell us more than we really wanted or needed to know. In an introduction, Bartle distances herself from her creation, pointing out that this is but a work of fiction. Nevertheless, the line between exposition and exhibition is a fine one, and there are times when, as a reader, I felt decidedly icky.

If her characterisation is a strength (and it is), then one of Bartle’s weaknesses is pacing. This is quite a simple, almost leisurely story, so any faltering in pace is doubly noticeable. It isn’t a major problem, and probably could’ve been sorted out with a bit of judicious editing and maybe a rewrite or two. In fact, all the quibbles I have with this novel (and they’re relatively minor) could’ve been similarly remedied. As this is Rhonda Bartle’s first novel, one shouldn’t be too harsh. She undoubtedly has talent and is likely to be around for a while yet, so it’s an observation worth making. This would’ve been a considerably better book with a little more work.

 

Phil Kawana is a Wellington writer.

 

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