Well-heeled walking wounded, Stevan Eldred-Grigg

The Best of Shonagh Koea’s Short Stories
Shonagh Koea
Vintage, $29.95,
ISBN 1 86941 372 5

Shonagh Koea in her capacity as naughty fairy god mother – or maybe wicked fairy stepmother – has made a specialty of writing acid words inside the template of middle-middlebrow fiction. We tend to think, when reading Koea, about the ironic, dry satirical tradition of such storytellers as Nancy Mitford. Not that the author of Love in a Cold Climate fits completely when we look at the work of Shonagh Koea. The daughter of the English lordling always spun her stories around some sort of fixed axis of belief – conservatism, conceit – while the satire of the sorceress from the Tamaki Isthmus can sometimes appear to spin around little more than grief, and loss of faith, and flinty yet hollow words.

Nor is it without significance that we need to invoke a writer of the mid 20th century. Shonagh Koea writes in a way that makes her works resemble small pieces, curiously wrought, mounted inside a museum of literary artefacts. “I deal in things that are archaic,” says the protagonist of her story “Wednesdays”. Her choice of words is often anachronistic. We are in a world of “motorcars” and “aeroplanes” and “gramophones”. We feel that her characters are living a little after their day. Maybe we can invoke Anita Brookner. Brookner, like Koea, fingers small artefacts, and when reading her work we sense that we have lost our way a bit and have gone back in time to a world of characters no longer to be found too often inside fictions – let alone outside fictions. A world where language has “a charmingly dated air” – as a fictional editor tells a fictional writer in the Koea story “Quartet”.

Yet the gloves worn by Brookner while fingering those artefacts are sewn by hand from fine kid. The gloves worn by Koea are extruded by the tubes of a rubber factory somewhere in some industrial suburb to be worn by us when spraying ammonia onto the grouting of shower cabinets somewhere in some residential suburb. Gloves chemically dyed a jaundiced yellow or a lurid pink.

Okay – faint and perhaps pretty tortuous praise for the start of a review. Why should we read the collected short stories of Shonagh Koea?

We should read her stories because she’s a marvellous stylist. Have you read that about her work when thumbing through reviews? We should read her stories because they’re stylish, rich, distinguished. And we should also read her stories because she shows a mordant insight – or so we may have heard from reviews. So that’s why we should read Shonagh Koea! Of course we shouldn’t. We shouldn’t read her stories for any of those reasons.

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Let’s start with her as a stylist. The style is almost always the same – she shows few signs of searching for a unique stylistic solution for each story. Nor does she stand out as a stylist. Her metaphors and similes, for instance, seldom mean anything below the surface. Her prose is prey to the pathetic fallacy. The moon is “sullen” in “Pleasures of the Past”. Waves are “sulky” and wind is “malignant” in “Little Varmints”. And so on. Descriptive passages are full of unnecessary elaborations, elaborate enough to impede yet not to excite the reader. Dialogue is no more her forte than narrative description. Most of her dialogues are so underwritten as to waste the opportunity offered by well-scripted dialogue to multiply implicit meanings economically and memorably. More her forte is monologue. Many a monologue may be found – the wandering thoughts of the discomfited misfits who inhabit her fiction.

A few of the stories in this collection show that the writer, when she chooses, certainly can vary her style. “A Novel in a Room” is written in a circumspect yet strong manner reminiscent of the work of James Courage – not only because of its spare style but thanks to its setting in a big decaying house on what seems a sheep station in Canterbury. “Meat” by contrast is written in a laconic voice that seems almost Sargesonian.
A male protagonist tells the tale in the first person – also  fairly exceptional, since the preferred voice of the author is more removed. A voice very nicely handled. Yet the story seems superfluous since it appears not to add anything new to the emotional or intellectual or artistic range of either Koea or Sargeson.

So her work’s not stylish. How about that mordant insight? Insight actually comes as pretty slim pickings in these stories. Her insights are very few, and very small. Humans are almost always lonely in her world. Humans are not a social species but a species of solitary souls, according to the narrator of “Edmund and the Tempest” – they are “those lost and lonely souls who mostly inhabit the earth.” The narrator of “Death and Transfiguration” tries to comfort herself by observing that we can at least look for love from “a cat and the dead”.

The lonely people depicted in the stories are almost entirely white people. One or two secondary characters are Maori – for example, the man in “A Rustle in the Undergrowth” – or Indian or Chinese. Yet the protagonist almost always will prove to be Pakeha. A protagonist will also prove almost always to be a woman. “Edmund and the Tempest” is an exception – interestingly, when she writes about writers (not only Edmund in “Tempest” but Andrew in “Quartet”) the writer seems to find it easier to adopt a male persona than to stay inside her own gender. And a protagonist will almost always be fairly well-heeled, a fully paid-up member of the middle class. The milieu may be defined neatly with the help of half a sentence lifted from “The Antique Dealer” – a milieu whose protagonists may have led sad lives but who nevertheless have found “no trouble over paying, no cheques that bounced, no problem with funds”.

The white women of the middle class who wander through the stories are a sad, withdrawn, passive line of people waiting in a queue for life. People who scarcely know how to feel anything fiercely – desire, or anger, or love, or greed. Hardly anyone can be found in these stories who feels, let alone acts, ardently, violently. Strongly defined characters are almost always unlikeable, while ostensibly likeable characters are wishy-washy or tight-arsed.

Marvellous territory for a skilful storyteller! Inadequate people caught in banal circumstances, responding in a banal way – the richest resource in the world for the best writers. Shonagh Koea knows the minds of such people and has made herself almost their laureate. Not for her a story about characters trying to get a good robust grip on life. We are in a pallid world. A world soured by what in “Good Order and Naval Discipline” is called “the slow cruelty of relinquishment”. A woman does not erotically grab a man with hope – for example, in “A Rustle in the Undergrowth” – instead she places “one pale hand on his dark arm in a desperate enticement”. Desperate, and hopeless. She loses the guy. Of course. A mirroring gesture, made by a man, may be found in another story, “Naughty Maureen”: “His hand, as harsh as his voice, grasped her arm without affection”.

Lovers are always cold or lost in the fictional world of Shonagh Koea. The typical woman of the stories turns from intimacy because she finds it “easier to be solitary”. Repeatedly we come across characters who bond more warmly with cats or dogs or birds than with fellow people.

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Shonagh Koea is the muse of the mundane as well as the solitary. Her cast of suburbanites are filled with mediocre and usually nameless fears – and craftily she allows the fears to remain nameless. She shows rather than tells us how these hapless losers have landed themselves in such shit. The narrator in “Mrs Pratt Goes to China” jeers at “a sociology text dealing with the children of disturbed homes who seek what they lack in any marriage, and do not find it.” Yet the writer behind the mask of that narrator has already taken care to offer us a cause for the escapist passivity of the protagonist by portraying her mother – better still, the mother portrays herself by speaking out loud to the daughter:

“Just put the kettle on, will you? And get some wood in. Don’t use any of the good stuff, that’s for visitors. Get that mucky barky stuff. Good job you come really. The place hasn’t had a good do through since you left.”

A lot of similarly dreadful parents must lurk behind the lives of most of the protagonists in stories by Shonagh Koea.

Characters listlessly or taciturnly try to cope with their repressed fears and in the process live lives which to the reader seem frequently appalling. “And don’t ever let the bastards in this town see you cry,” a husband tells a wife as though it is the summit of wisdom in “Your Father, The Bird”. Nobody in these stories seems to have a good sex life. Sexual partners are dead, for the most part. Elinor in “Dragon Courier” has her husband “safely tucked away under his tailored granite headstone.”

Fantasy rather than robust reality is the way most characters in these stories try to cope. They dream. The protagonist of “Quartet” ends up by announcing: “In fact, I can tell you all, in complete honesty, that my whole life is like a dream.” They moon their lives away. They succumb to silly notions of reinventing themselves as somehow more glamorous. The protagonist in “Tell Me, Is Beckwith Dead?” hopes that a fellow character has “escaped the suburbs and could now be laughing in a distant foreign eyrie, seduced by the scent of frangipani or ravished by views of domed bronze rooftops.”

Peter in “A Different View” thinks “fondly of how he might manufacture more foreign-ness for his life.” He turns his house into a sort of suburban pastiche of Greece and Italy and Auckland. Other characters allow their minds to roam foolishly towards India, China. China, the land of escape for Mrs Pratt, is “a fabled land”, glittering in her mind “like a brilliant mirage”. The appearance of the word “mirage” at the end of the story is very nicely done – because until its appearance we have been inclined in spite of ourselves to share the maladjusted view of the world as seen by Mrs Pratt.

Travellers remain outsiders, of course. Elinor in “Dragon Courier” travels to “the Orient”. She finds herself landed in a faintly malevolent environment, an “evil dream” rather than a wonderfully fulfilled fantasy. Elinor as worried white outsider, middle-class westerner, can scarcely cope with beggars and touts and other small traders. She thinks that she has become “not a person but a purse containing money”. The money stuffed inside the purses and trust funds of the characters of Shonagh Koea are what we can call – to adopt another of her phrases – the “currency of malaise”.

Yet the writer is always very careful to keep her distance. The narrator in most of the stories refuses to know more than the characters, holds cards firmly pressed against the chest, keeps the characters confined within the limited circles of their own anxious cerebration. The reader is enticed into making the mistake of perceiving the world the way the world is perceived by the characters. The wronged, querulous, heartsick, alienated dysfunction of those characters becomes credible, believable, almost loveable.

Shonagh Koea waves a small wand in her capacity as fairy stepmother of fiction. She waves it well. Her characters – the well-heeled walking wounded – have found their voice in these short stories. Misplaced, misfitting, the poor sods stay stuck inside the story. At the best of times they can scarcely manage to fidget their way towards some silly posture of escape. Our hearts, thanks to the gifts of the storyteller, bleed for their vain, lonely souls.

Maybe she’s not the wicked fairy stepmother – maybe more a middle-aged Tinkerbell?

Stevan Eldred-Grigg is a Christchurch historian and novelist.

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Posted in Literature, Review, Short stories
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