Otago University Press, $24.95,
Between Black and White
I find that when reading a first novel I often flick to the little publisher logo on the spine. I acknowledge that this system reflects a certain prejudice. I also know that it is often accurate. So, it is refreshing to see good new fiction coming from a press other than VUP. In this case the publisher is University of Otago Press, and the novel is Bronwyn Bannister’s Haunt.
This slender novel is the story of three women living in a small town north of Dunedin. The story is told in turns, shifting from Irene, a widow, to Margaret, a young mother and again to Margaret’s daughter Ruth. Together the three women share a secret, one that is revealed through a newspaper article. It’s 1928, and a small boy is discovered on Mrs Peters’ (Irene’s) property. The child is filthy and cannot speak. Both Mrs Peters and the boy are sent to Seacliff Mental Hospital.
In their own ways both Irene and Margaret are, as characters, conventional and familiar. Both have suffered from difficult childhoods, both have lost their mothers and both have lived, to varying degrees and often by choice, in isolation. They meet weekly for some 40 years, including the 30 Irene spends at the Hospital.
As the two women sit and talk and remember their lives, Ruth, as a little girl and later a woman, wanders about asking questions, opening doll’s houses, and listening to their stories. Ruth appears in the novel as an imaginative child who accompanies her mother on her weekly visits to her neighbour. She also appears indirectly through a series of fairy stories that punctuates the novel. These stories, about Kings and Queens and a couple of sisters, follow and are retold throughout the novel. Slowly these stories begin to shift the reader away from the child who listens to the women who are telling the stories. And these “imaginary” stories parallel and then disappear into the increasingly flexible stories the women create about their own lives.
Crossing between these parallel narratives is the novel’s ghost – a more literal version of Irene’s secret. Beginning in a fairy story, this ghost is a once beloved child, who dies and is unable, in spirit, to mend his parents’ broken hearts. This young male ghost now haunts Irene and her house. He keeps her awake at night and disrupts her physical world with minor thefts and the occasional thump. He is the subject of a series of unsent letters to her own daughter Helen that marks the only attempt Irene has ever made to articulate, however indirectly, her troubled emotional world. The only person ever to see the ghost is Ruth, who sees him as a child and, terrified, manages in a strange way to soothe a troubled Irene – if only because at least with Ruth the ghost can be acknowledged as real.
In quite clever and accomplished ways, Bannister allows us to forget about Ruth and her unease at what she thinks she remembers about the time before the discovery of the ghost. Ruth is an imaginative child and later a troubled young woman, who can be dismissed as neurotic – she marries more than once, goes to therapy, calls her brother at midnight and isn’t happy. She is a kind of indulgence that Irene and Margaret refuse to allow for in their quiet, orderly, seemingly straightforward lives. She is the tension that undermines the women’s stories and nags at the reader, but like the women we are allowed to ignore Ruth and somehow continue to believe that it is the women who will reveal their secrets.
Haunt is a clever novel that is carefully constructed and truly surprising at the end. Surprising because, as readers, we have done what the women want, and because we have sympathy for them. Their requests appear quite reasonable – they want to be left alone. The title invites the comment, and so I’ll make it – this novel is haunting. It is suspenseful and sad and quite moving. It is a complete little world (like a fairy story) that manages to be both familiar and remotely intact. Well-timed and confident, this novel does the magical – it tricks the reader, and few first novels can make that claim.
Between Black and White is Eirlys Hunter’s first adult novel; she is better known as a children’s writer. We are told this in the author’s blurb, where we are also told (I’m paraphrasing) that Hunter is a happy woman, who loves Wellington and lives in a rambling house with a view. I mention this because it is this “cheeriness” that keeps this novel from being entirely satisfying. Between Black and White is a good novel, which just doesn’t quite ring true.
The central character is Jessie, a woman we meet as an adult in 1999 sending off a series of photographs for an exhibition. Refusing to write a catalogue, Jessie/Hunter instead offers us notes (or snapshots) of Jessie’s life. The story touches on the present, but moves primarily between Jessie’s childhood in Wellington and her OE in the late 1970s in London. In focusing on her youth, Hunter is writing about a young woman trying to negotiate the distances within and between families, both emotionally and geographically. She is a girl/woman trying to re-create herself and at the same time make sense of the girl she once was.
Young Jessie is a familiar character, a woman in her mid-twenties living in London. She has a boring job and nowhere to live until a nice man named Nick invites her to join his squat – a beautiful old house set for demolition called Arcadia. Without the mod cons, Jessie and her new community set about enjoying life in London; they listen to music, they rail against tyranny and, once her cousin arrives from Australia, they try and save their house. In this world, this new family, Jessie begins to find the courage to make sense of her biological family.
With trepidation Jessie visits an elderly aunt living in London – Mitzi. Mitzi is Jessie’s mother’s sole living relative, and it is through this relationship that Jessie begins to make sense of her mother’s death. Through Mitzi, Jessie is reminded of her Jewish heritage and the family’s legacy of loss (the family are German Jews). Mitzi not only gives Jessie a sense of familial place, but it is Mitzi who, through a series of letters, is able to mend the rift between Jessie and her dead mother.
We know this story – we know about the dislocations and the racial tensions of the 70s and early 80s and political awakenings. We know that stories about mothers and daughters are endlessly fascinating, especially to mothers and daughters. We know that finding a sense of self when we are young takes up most of our youth. In all the places Jessie travels (physically and emotionally), Hunter maintains an evocative sense of location and time. Ultimately, Between Black and White is a story governed by optimism, and there is something nice about a story about a good kid who sorts it out. That said, it is this sense of being a good kid, even when she is being horrible, which at times makes you think not of a child, but of a much older woman.
In a number of ways, this novel reminds me of Jane Westaway’s Good at Geography, another first adult novel from a children’s writer. Like Hunter, Westaway is writing about a girl straddling two worlds and trying to make sense of herself and her parents. Westaway’s girl is an adolescent and somehow this encourages, or prevents, the writer from a more romantic depiction of young life. By contrast, Hunter’s Jessie is not only that little bit older, but also looking back at her own adolescence. In effect, that wonderful sense of injustice that the world doesn’t revolve around Jessie is replaced by a world that does in fact revolve around Jessie. Everything, and everyone, is ready to deal with Jessie’s struggles – nice boy, nice auntie, nice father, nice friends, bit difficult, but nice cousin. Too nice, too sentimental and while you can argue against my cynical soul, you can’t deny that really nice lives are just that little bit suspicious.
Laura Kroetsch is a Wellington reviewer.