The flip side of adventurousness, Judith Holloway

Closed, Stranger
Kate De Goldi
Penguin, $15.95, ISBN 0 14 130504 5

hanging on letting go
Helen Beaglehole
Mallinson Rendel, $14.95, ISBN 0 908783 47 7

The Shaman and the Droll
Jack Lasenby
Longacre, $14.95, ISBN 1 877135 32 1

Reaching Summit Peak
Elizabeth Benney
Cape Catley, $15.95, ISBN 0 908561 77 6

Kate De Goldi, you feel, lives close to teenage boys. As an author, she’s able to take the risk parents are more or less incapable of. She stands neutral, holding her tongue, as they lurch off out the door, knowing they’ll be pursuing sly, scary and solipsistic agendas. As inventor, she follows them imaginatively, noting their trespasses, the false boldness of their opinion, their secret vulnerabilities. She is forgiving, awaiting the moment which might trip them into taking some truly poised steps.

In Closed, Stranger, the two eighteen-year-old boys at the centre of this stark and insightful novel, have been mates since Intermediate – “Westie”, the flamboyant leader, and Max, the admiring follower (who is also the narrator of the book). Max is swept along by Westie’s reckless pursuit of atavistic experience, and his intellectual brilliance. They’re both competitive, even with each other, and they’re on a mission to try everything at least once, never mind the consequence.

They are also bent on escape – Max from his unhappy mother who can’t come to grips with the fact that her husband has left her for another woman; Westie from the unbearable knowledge that he was adopted at birth.

Then, during their first year at university, Love smacks them both between the eyes and they are brought to a standstill. They begin to calm down, to grow. But the peace is short-lived. The object of Westie’s love is, in fact, his own blood mother, Vicky, who was only sixteen when she was forced to give him up for adoption and has been worrying about him ever since. Now, at age 32, and with the knowledge she can’t have other children, she has tracked him down. They meet secretly and are instantly gob-smacked by mutual attraction. The empathy between them, and their relief at knowing each other at last, leads to a fully sexual love affair.

Alas, only chaos can ensue from such an extraordinary phenomenon. And it does. Without warning, Vicky calls things to a halt and returns to Sydney, and this sets in motion the events that end in the inevitable tragedy of the book. Westie, the self-invented nihilist and hard man, hits a dark wall of despair. He hurls himself at it, lacerating himself and everyone else around him.

This is the guts of the book. Such a summary may make it sound like a sensational tele-movie plot. But there is nothing shallow about this novel. De Goldi has a deep sympathy for all her characters and their problems – even when they’re self-imposed.

The selfish, cruel Westie and “typical-Kiwi-blokey” Max are stunningly well drawn. So are the more peripheral but vitally important characters of Dee, Max’s sad, unpredictable mother; his troubled younger brother Leon; his “prickish” father with the pregnant new partner Gilly; and Meredith, Max’s charming, well-rounded girlfriend, whose goodness and steadiness hugely influence him. Westie’s adoptive parents, Liz and Dave Westgarth, are also very well observed.

De Goldi doesn’t hold back from using the fuck-ridden language of today’s teenagers, but the kids in Closed, Stranger are also big on describing and analysing their feelings and experiences with a rich, broad vocabulary. Such a contrast to the slangy, repetitive pap that is meant to reflect realistic adolescent dialogue on television! In fact, the whole tenor of the book, its probing intelligence and style, its unhysterical illumination of a taboo relationship, its sheer seriousness, should ensure this novel a lasting place with the best literature of the country. Though about young adults, Closed, Stranger is certainly not just for young adult readers.

hanging on letting go, Helen Beaglehole’s fourth novel for adolescent readers, tells the heart-breaking story of how a young, fit, strong and confident 17-year-old, Ben Walker, makes one wrong-headed, off-the-cuff decision on a tramping expedition and ends up breaking his neck and becoming a tetraplegic.

This flip side of adventurousness is the nightmare anxiety that every parent of a daring child lives with; an anxiety dismissed as neurotic by the daredevil. But terrible, life-changing accidents happen. As one does in this novel – profoundly affecting not only Ben himself, but also his family, his girlfriend Rachel, and his best friend Zac. The perspective in hanging on letting go is mostly Rachel’s, but occasionally we are also privy to Ben’s acute depression and anguish. They are both thoroughly likeable people, torn apart by misery.

At first, Rachel feels she is partly to blame for not trying hard enough to deflect Ben from the course that led to his accident. Loving him, she’s determined to see him every spare minute she has, catering to his needs, trying to keep him involved in “normal” activities, assuring him they’ll never break up.

But Ben is not necessarily responsive to Rachel’s good intentions. He gets depressed, negative. Rachel’s hopefulness turns to ambivalence. She beats herself up for not being prepared to make enough sacrifices, then for not being truly “sincere”, merely dutiful. All understandable, very well handled by Beaglehole.

The book has a positive ending in which Zac, Ben’s friend – who has disappeared for a while – and Rachel work out a reasonably happy solution. But I must admit I didn’t quite believe in it. Nor did the character of Zac quite come into focus. However, it’s an absorbing read, a touching examination of the sort of dilemmas and miseries that few of us ever have to face.

In The Shaman and the Droll, this third book of a planned quartet of novels, Ish, Lasenby’s archetypal boy-to-man figure, continues his odyssey towards he knows not where. Set sometime in the future after the earth has been virtually destroyed by a holocaust, in a land that might or might not be New Zealand, the novels have taken Ish from disaster to disaster, through danger after danger, challenge after challenge. He has learned to survive, learned to protect himself and to be loyal where necessary.

Near the beginning of The Shaman and the Droll, Ish has had a narrow escape from the warrior-women of the Floating Village and a band of the terrible Salt Men, and is rescued by the Bear Man. For once, this is a male who has given up aggression as a way of life. This man is into healing, truth and wisdom. It turns out he is the Shaman, the healer and arbitrator of disputes of the ordinary villagers who inhabit the harsh, frozen land of the Great White Bear.

The Shaman knows about flora with healing properties, is a masseur and surgeon and has trained himself to find the source of illness and to know whether or not it is treatable. He can also read and his cave contains many books that spell out to him the wisdom of the ages, pre-holocaust. He teaches Ish to read, as well as the arts of healing and diagnosis of sickness. Ish becomes aware he is being trained to take over the role of Shaman.

It’s a sober novel, dominated by the earnest characters of the Shaman and Ish, the former imparting knowledge and skills, the latter absorbing both, unquestioningly. It’s sparse on dialogue, but full of acute observations of the physicality of the land and the people.

The life Lasenby presents is hard and bleak, very male-oriented, but strangely lacking in love, joy and sensuality. And humour. I can’t quite believe in such a world, and am surprised that the inventor of Uncle Trev and Harry Wakatipu could have ignored the element of humour that must – mustn’t it? – be endemic in human nature, even in humans pitted constantly against the onslaughts of nature and human marauders.

That aside, the book is interesting in its exploration of some of the ways certain practices might become traditions, how non-literate people might pass on their beliefs in the form of stories, how they might amuse and delight themselves with song, dance and decoration. And how they may be held captive by fear of unexplained phenomena and by those who manipulate and control through propaganda and superstition. These forces are represented here by the unseen “Droll” and her minion, the vile priest known as “The Carny”.

I look forward to the final chapter of Ish’s journey in which he will perhaps be ambushed by love instead of terror. There are plenty of hints throughout The Shaman and the Droll that the young warrior-woman, Lutha, might play a big part in the next book. But no doubt there will first be trouble in dealing with the Droll and the Carny.

Reaching Summit Rock is a completely different kettle of fish. Set in Taranaki during and just after World War Two, it is strongly based on the author’s memories of family life. It was my time of being a teenager too – in Wanganui – so it felt pretty familiar to me. But perhaps it explores an atmosphere so different from contemporary life that it will seem like a “foreign” or “classic” novel to today’s adolescents. I’ve recently re-read an old favourite, My Friend Flicka by Mary O’Hara, and this novel, with its horse-mad protagonist and 1940s setting, reminded me of it.

The simplicity of life in those pre-television, pre-computer, pre-feminism days is what struck me most: the clear-cut expectations about being fair, kind and thoughtful, having good manners; trying not to use “Level 2” swear words (except under your breath); children doing what adults told them to, and if not, guiltily making up for it in some way, if possible.

The novel has a very straightforward structure. In the opening paragraphs, the narrator, Elizabeth Matthews, who is in her last year at school, explains that she is entering a competition to win a university scholarship. The task is for the sixth form girls to write about “how the past few years have shaped their own lives”.

Elizabeth’s account of the previous years is then told in the present tense as though it’s just happening – beginning with the death (from a heart attack) and burial of Peggy, Elizabeth’s mother’s beloved horse. Then, in quick succession, she tells of the events which mark a miserable summer: she gets her own pony, Monty – but she does all the wrong things in her handling of him, earning her grandfather’s disapproval; then Grandpa dies suddenly; and, horror of horrors, Mother is diagnosed as having tuberculosis and has to go to hospital. Elizabeth and her younger sister Jill immediately have to assume responsibility for the running of the house, including cooking the meals, and caring for their baby brother Johnny.

The twin concerns – fear that her mother might die, and pursuing her fervent dream to become a champion rider – dominate Elizabeth’s life. In those days, before the discovery of streptomycin, tuberculosis was an extremely serious disease. Several different treatments are tried, in vain, in New Plymouth Hospital’s Chest Ward and at the Otaki Sanatorium. Until, finally, streptomycin saves the day.

The story unfolds against the background of the author’s family history, Taranaki’s rolling paddocks, Mt Egmont, the roaring surf and cliffs of the glorious coastline, the local Home Guard’s efforts to deflect the feared Japanese invasion, “Invasion Drill” practices at school, placing bets over the phone in coded language to the bookie, rigid hospital rules, wartime refugees providing household help, horse-breeding and the blushing shyness of a 1940s boy-girl romance.

Though there’s a powerful flavour of kindness and honourable behaviour permeating this book, the characters and relationships are far from sickly-sweet and sentimental. Yes, I admit that reading it was a pleasant wallow in nostalgia for me – but it will be interesting to find out how young readers of today relate to it. It’s certainly one of a kind.

Judith Holloway is a writer for children who teaches writing for children at Whitireia Polytechnic, Porirua.

Closed, Stranger won an Honour Award at the 2000 New Zealand Post Children’s Book Awards.

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Posted in Literature, Review, Young adults
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