The age of ignorance, Sue McCauley

A Dangerous Vine
Barbara Ewing
Penguin, $29.95,
ISBN 0 316 64691 1

In expatriate innocence Barbara Ewing has done what Pakeha writers in this country have learnt they must not do. A novel about race relations, full of colourful Maori characters portrayed with sentiment and affection. So politically incorrect I found myself, initially, cringing on Ewing’s behalf.

It was 1983, at a writers’ seminar, that Patricia Grace told the rest of us firmly that Maori had had enough of being misrepresented by non-Maori writers – it was an area we should step aside from, thank you. We protested freedom of speech and so forth – though without much conviction. (Patricia could not, at that time, have foreseen the advent of Alan Duff, or the way that his scouring vision would be so widely – and eagerly? – embraced as the true and only portrait of the race.)

So here is Ewing writing about New Zealand in the 1950s; taking us back to the days of trams, débutantes, six o’clock closing, overt racism, and abysmal sexual ignorance. A time when women had to get married and the combination of beer and guitars carried no overtones of menace. A time, Ewing tells us, when a few deluded dreamers dared to suggest that te reo could have a place in the future.

Despite ignoring a basic tenet of political correctness, A Dangerous Vine is in fact immensely PC. Which isn’t to say the novel feels polemical, just that it embodies a certain point of view in that old-fashioned way good novels used to. And this is a deliberately and sustainedly old-fashioned novel. Only in the brief epilogue, in a blast of hindsight, does the author usher us into the present.

At the heart of the story is Margaret-Rose Bennett who lives at home with her English-born returned serviceman father and mentally unstable mother. While attending university part-time, Margaret Rose works in a government department known as “the Bureau” but recognisable as the Department of Maori Affairs. She is fascinated by the differences she perceives in those of her co-workers who are Maori. By degree, despite her parents’ best efforts, she comes to embrace (in all senses of the word) things Maori.  Her timid and repressed psyche responds to the vitality, the emotional warmth …

I know. Already you are either yawning or cringing.  Pulleese! But this, remember, is in the 50s when we were all uncool (and perhaps a little more truthful). Besides, there is also an interwoven plot in which a corrupt politician fiddles the books in order to acquire a desirable stretch of Maori-owned land.

I admit to having begun this book with considerable reservations, partly due to reviews I’d read but also because I’d found Ewing’s last novel, The Actresses, so unabsorbing. And it wasn’t hard to find reasons to bolster my preconceptions. The narrative voice, almost childlike in its simplicity and use of repetition, felt sometimes strained and occasionally downright irritating. The intention, clearly, was to give the writing a dated feel in the interest of “50s” authenticity. This it does, but as a reader I’d happily have traded a bit of ambience for sharper prose. There would be no danger of mistaking the era, for the novel is chocka with déjà vu detail. Yes, I kept thinking. Yes, there was … Yes, we did … Yes, we actually thought

Leaving a country is an excellent way to preserve and distil one’s memories of the place, but even given an actor’s line-learning powers of recall, Barbara Ewing must, here, have done assiduous research. More, in fact, than she or we needed, for at times it feels that information has been shoved in for historical rather than literary purpose. But then, in 341 pages, we get more than we need in a number of ways. This, I presume, is because A Dangerous Vine is intended for readers outside New Zealand, who require context and background information, and for mass market readers who need spoon-feeding. Though that doesn’t explain away dialogue that is too often clunky and loaded with exposition. Some judicious editorial slicing would, I think, have made this a much better novel.

Yet despite these literary quibbles, despite the cringe factor, my initial reservations soon gave way to a growing respect for what the author had achieved. A Dangerous Vine is, I think, an important and timely contribution to New Zealand literature. Not for the story (though this was perfectly satisfying and reasonably convincing, with enough passion and intrigue to keep me hooked right through to the end) but for what it tells us about the kind of people we were almost half a century ago.

“[A] quirky and disturbing view of what was happening in those islands so far away from the rest of the world,” says the blurb on the back. But memory tells me Ewing’s view, disturbing or otherwise, is not so much “quirky” as accurate and clear-sighted. In this new century Margaret-Rose Bennett’s slightly awed, slightly nervous attraction to taha Maori may make us squirm, and the racist pronouncements of her Pakeha peers may seem hammy and ludicrous, yet we can’t deny them. And in the insulated, dysfunctional society that Ewing presents us with, we can begin to understand what causes her characters to behave as they do.

Strangers, Ewing’s first novel, released in the70s, was also about inter-racial relationships, though set, as I remember, in Britain and therefore scarcely noticed here. It impressed me at the time (not just, I hope, because we seemed to share a preoccupation). A Dangerous Vine is a more ambitious novel, and, better still, it’s about us. If you were here in the 50s, it will take you back; if you weren’t, it may help to explain those of us who were.

And if you’re Maori, I’d like to know whether or not, in the 21st century, it’s okay for non-Maori writers to tread on your literary turf?

Sue McCauley is a Christchurch novelist.

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