Sidelong reflections, Norman Bilbrough

All Done With Mirrors
Russell Haley
Hazard Press, $24.95,
ISBN 1 877161 68 3

This is the sort of novel you could search through – in vain – for a narrative skeleton: the firm coat-hanger from which the story is suspended: cogent, material and with definition. Not finding this, you could then start searching for a code. Has Haley got a story-line there, covertly, behind the images; behind the perpetual and seductive languor; behind the reminiscence? I don’t think so. Which leads on to the next query. Does it matter? Not at all.

Tilly Katterfelto, the narrator, wears a thin talisman of skin cut from the thigh of her ancestor Gustavus Katterfelto after his death. Gustavus was an illusionist, and mirrors and magic seems to be the theme of this novel. But then again, considering the evasive techniques of the author, this isn’t necessarily so. Tilly is in her 50s, she’s English, and she’s spent much of her life living in North Auckland, and travelling the world. She meets Samuel Beckett, she dwells alone in Prague, she is stood up in San Francisco, she finds happiness in Queensland. And she writes it all down from another house in Dunedin.

The incident that drove her south from her beloved villa by a Northland river is not huge, but it has a ghastly and poetic impact on her. (And on the reader.) It is one of the few traumas in Tilly’s life: indeed her journeys are rather drama-free and, like the illusionist theme, her obsessive loves are downplayed. She does apparently fall for a young American woman, Stella, but the reader is informed of this, rather than the actual obsession becoming alive on the page. Indeed, superficially, this book could seem like a series of limpid poetic travel anecdotes, seductive, mildly entertaining. But again this is not so.

To go back a step. I was also reading E Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News while I was reading All Done With Mirrors, and I was struck by the way style can capture a reader’s sympathy. Or alienate it, as Proulx’s writing does me. She offers a staccato style, crammed with images: a style which is emphatically intriguing and seductive to begin with, but whose interest soon flags. It is too confrontational. It gives you no conduit into the main characters. Haley’s style is very different and has the opposite effect. It’s laid-back, it doesn’t rush you, and Haley has no interest in impressing. The style is not frontal, it contains ease and languor and one’s sympathy is captured. (Which seems to show that style is more than technique: it has emotional power and transference.)

This all gives time for the gradual revealing of the character of Tilly. Haley gives her her head in a sense, and Tilly then languorously unravels her life through events, thoughts, reminiscences, and perceptions that seem mostly disconnected, but – by the end of the book – are obviously not at all. Tilly is left alone to inexorably present the fabric of a life. Hers. And Haley caught this reader initially, by that gentle and quirky style of his: in a sense a muted hook into the book.

But is the fabric of a life enough? Well, it’s that and slightly more because Tilly is a lovely character, she’s a person who’s quirky and engaging and the process of the book – if that can be substituted for narrative – is her coming to a place of relaxed realisation. A sort of Taoist place of acceptance.

There is nothing hard-edged about the story, or the telling. What strikes one is the softness of perceptions: they’re feminine and intriguing, and Tilly approaches all events in a philosophical and covert way. She edges up to events and is thoughtful of their meaning. She presents her life as if she’s stealing up on it, then revealing it, softly. Without comment, and certainly without noise. Tilly is such a laid-back, perceptive and visual person – altogether charming – that one can’t help wondering where she comes from.

This touches on a question that has, spasmodically, worried literary commentators over the years: “Are men qualified to write from a woman’s point of view?” There are hardly any men in this book – and there’s no obvious labour on the part of the author to create a convincing female persona. So the question is not, it seems, “Are men qualified to write such a point of view?” so much as, “Are individual imaginations sufficient for the task?” Or, “Are a writer’s intuitive sensibilities able to make the jump such a job requires?” Haley’s obviously are: he shows a finely tuned imaginative sensibility that creates all the quirks and distinctive corners of the feminine world.

Tilly Katterfelto is one of the most attractive characters to appear in NZ fiction for a while. She’s a special middle-aged woman who, as well as loving the 70s, convincingly loves places, literature, music, and people. And she discovers herself as the reader discovers her. This is, I suppose, Haley executing a prolonged passage of the Show Don’t Tell rule: it’s not until the very end that Tilly is a totally revealed person.

A character who loves life is difficult to portray. And in the sense that Tilly isn’t handicapped by a shut-down and wary New Zealand sensibility, she’s quite an international character. Or is it just that our better fiction writers are breaking out of our curt and parochial stereotypes? All Done With Mirrors is one of the most beguiling novels I have read for some time.

Norman Bilbrough was the Creative Writing Fellow at Canterbury University last year. His collection of stories Desert Shorts was reviewed in our December 1999 issue.

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