Return to One Foot Island
50 Short Short Stories by Young New Zealanders
ed Graeme Lay
Tandem Press, $19.95,
When I was biding my time before adulthood, I had a fondness for Sweet Valley High romances. The eternal, recycled goings-on of Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield were deeply soothing – pulp fiction was an effective poultice for my various troubles.
But there was a more competent side to my young adult self, and when it wanted to read fiction that featured my New Zealand peers, the pickings were limited. It seemed, for a while there in the early 1980s, that period detail was compulsory in fiction written for young adults. Happily, the variety of young adult titles on offer today is much greater, and the number of new authors writing in this genre is ever increasing. More importantly, many of the books have local content with characters who explore the here and now.
Love in the tropics sounds like it would involve one of the ubiquitous Wakefield twins, and Graeme Lay’s heroine of Return to One Foot Island does have a similarly well-rounded wholesomeness. Tuaine lives on Aitutaki, in the Cook Islands, with her grandparents. She is popular, intelligent, reliable, responsible, sensible, and a competent sailor – not your average teenager, it could be argued. Tuaine does, however, have a weak point: a year at high school in Auckland that was a failure and ended with a shoplifting incident, a secret she frets over.
Early in the novel, Tuaine meets Adam, an Australian Jew, who is sailing around the Pacific with his family. His cultural background provides a source of fascination for Tuaine and a complication for her grandmother. Among other things, Lay uses it to explore tolerance and prejudice. Tuaine and Adam fall in love, an event that displeases Adam’s over-bearing parents and compels him to escape, with Tuaine’s help, to One Foot Island.
Like Penelope Todd and Joanna Orwin, Lay has written his novel in the third person, which he has interspersed with entries from Tuaine’s diary. But the diary entries don’t rectify one of the main problems with the book, which concerns the authenticity of the central character’s voice:
I have been to Tapuaaetai, to One Foot Island, so many times, but this was the best visit of all, because I was able to share it with Adam. The island became an even more special place today, not just because of what we found in each other, but because I learned that his feelings for me were stronger than for anything else in the world. And that is how I feel towards him. We talked about things that really mattered, the way that adults won’t accept people’s differences … What matters is what we feel for each other. Like the song says, “A love so strong, can’t be wrong”.
Such writing, for me, doesn’t articulate a distinctive voice that belongs to an adolescent girl, and I was never convinced by what I was reading. There is a stiltedness, perhaps caused partly by the level of formality, which had a distancing effect I found difficult to overcome.
In addition, Lay’s writing doesn’t grant the reader a satisfying level of access to Tuaine’s inner self – to such things as the experience of falling in love for the first time. There is no overwhelming emotion or doubt; no sweaty armpits or thrilling first kiss. Love, for Tuaine, is an entirely unphysical experience. For the reader, there is little to grab hold of, little to develop the intimacy necessary to break through the third-person barrier.
Coupled with this is a certain quaintness of tone which further detracts:
Tuaine lay back and stared up at the palm fronds … She loved the silence. This was why she came here, to be by herself, to think, to remember, to be alone. When she was here it was as if she was the only person on Earth. Lying back, staring up at the canopy of palm fronds, she thought again of the legend of One Foot Island.
Occasionally, the phrasing feels too well mannered and seems out of place, further compromising authenticity and the struggle to believe in Tuaine. It could be argued that this is the writer’s style or prerogative or that it’s a matter of personal preference. Or perhaps Tuaine is merely a down-to-earth or contained person. But this would have been a stronger novel if Lay had breathed more life into Tuaine and if more were shared with the reader and in a different way.
Focusing on this is probably being unduly negative. It’s possible that an adult reader is easily irritated and that the target audience wouldn’t be bothered by these things. It would be interesting to know. And Lay’s novel does have its good points. He has written several books about the South Pacific or with a South Pacific setting, including Leaving One Foot Island, the prequel to this novel. Lay’s knowledge of and appreciation for the area is obvious, and he writes of it with a familiar ease that is a strength of the novel. His descriptions are evocative and often quite beautiful.
Although I have reservations, Tuaine and Adam are still admirable people. They are thinking and thoughtful and have broad, intelligent conversations about things of substance: history, racism, religion, tolerance, language, their futures. I will resist saying that they’re good role models, but their enthusiasm and optimism and the care with which they approach life is a positive aspect of the book. Perhaps more self-indulgent, inward-looking teenage characters are more familiar territory, making them seem more authentic, and so a well-rounded, sensible one takes time to warm to. But, sensible or not, Tuaine remains vaguely inscrutable; interesting enough, but she’s never quite there.
Penelope Todd’s Peri is also about first love, but its main character has an immediacy that is a strength of the novel. Peri has just moved to Christchurch with her parents and young brother, Luke. She develops an enormous “thing” on her new best friend’s stroppy, detached brother. They flit about, intensely aware of one another, eventually getting it together at the novel’s end.
Unusually for this genre, Todd alternates Peri’s point of view with that of her brother’s, and the novel is divided between the two of them. Luke’s observations of the world, filtered through a child’s eyes, give the story an entirely different spin, adding a rich dimension both in terms of language and perspective:
When he was tired Luke could shut his eyes and eat raisins from the plastic bag hooked on a twig. He held them under his gums until the saliva made them fat, nibbled off the skin with his teeth and last, best, bit the wet heart.
Sometimes Luke’s contributions are whimsical, contrasting nicely with his sister’s, which voice an adolescent world that has increasing complications. At other times, they have a more structural function, moving the plot along and filling the reader in on what’s happening in a more distanced, yet effective, way:
When Peri read to him at night she kept stopping. She stared at nothing or she looked at the sky turning blue-to-black and he had to poke her and she said, “What, sorry, where were we?” … Other times she just kept moving and she jerked her head when the phone rang and was always looking out the window as if someone might come. Tonight she hadn’t eaten half her polenta.
The book’s structure and the way the story is told provide a unique approach for young adult writing, lifting it out of the ordinary. Todd has a quick, lean writing style, and she manages to evoke much from a little. She is particularly skilled at allowing the characters to speak for themselves, keeping the mechanisms of storytelling in the background. The novel also has a sense of humour (absent in Lay’s or Orwin’s novels), which adds to her light touch. Todd does examine topical issues, but the story isn’t dragged down by their weight.
Peri’s relationship with best friend Tamsin is particularly well drawn, and the complications and tensions between them are never overstated. Todd manages to capture that private, often intense, way of communicating that teenage girls have, which is no small achievement. Her use of dialogue is excellent, allowing her to convey personalities and relationships succinctly, without starchy detail. It’s also consistently spot-on, testifying either to a finely tuned ear or years of eavesdropping. There’s wit and plenty of energy, and it’s entertaining to read, an observation that applies to the whole book.
Joanna Orwin’s Owl has the most intensely realised setting of the three novels: a high country sheep station in the grip of winter. The environment is sharply drawn, and the hills, the snow, and the cold, along with the protagonist’s troubles, loom with a constant oppressiveness.
The winner of the Senior Fiction category at this year’s New Zealand Post Children’s Book Awards, Owl tells the story of Hamish, a keen amateur archaeologist, who finds Maori rock drawings in a cave on his family’s farm. Hamish photographs the perplexing bird-like images and takes a small artefact from the site – with catastrophic results that drive the rest of the novel.
Hamish’s actions release Pouakai, the giant human-eating eagle from the Maori legend of Waitaha, which has been extinct for 500 years. This event coincides with the arrival of Tama, a tough, slightly threatening youth from the city, who has been sent to the farm for a break. The boys’ relationship is uneasy, but they are forced to work together once Pouakai strikes.
Along with the familiar theme of persistence and self-discovery, the novel explores attitudes to Maori land rights and the repercussions of culturally insensitive behaviour, heavy issues that are complemented, and relieved, by the action-packed plot. And it is the novel’s plot, with its tense drama, that is a strong point. Orwin juggles the events well, sweeping the reader along with the fast pace and a pressing sense of dread. The descriptions of Pouakai’s attacks are genuinely creepy, and it’s easy to imagine young adult readers, particularly boys, reading eagerly, undoubtedly an achievement if the statistics are anything to go by.
Female characters in the novel are thin on the ground, and Kirsten, Hamish’s sister, is the only one of any significance aside from the mother, a distracted figure, grieving for their recently dead father. While this isn’t necessarily a gross omission, Kirsten has a girls-can-do-anything air about her, which is a minor weakness in the novel. Several other characters tend to lack depth or originality. Uncle Manny’s relentless colloquialisms and the belligerent farmers seem a little slavish to type, ironically an issue the novel articulates. But these are just quibbles in the grand scheme of things. It is an engrossing and satisfying book that delivers a lot.
When you constantly read adults’ interpretations of what young adults concern themselves with, it’s interesting to read something that cuts out the middle man, so to speak. 50 Short Short Stories by Young New Zealanders, edited by Graeme Lay, contains stories of 500 words or less, written by 13-18 year olds for a competition. Unsurprisingly, they vary in quality, depending both on age and ability, and it’s easy to favour the ones that take a simple approach and avoid the pitfalls of trying too hard.
“Taine” by Lily Emerson (15), which won second place, was one I especially liked, with its description of a girl’s love for her drug-addicted, drop-out friend. Over half the stories in the collection are written in the first person, with no less than nine boldly beginning with “I”. “Taine” follows this trend, but it takes a more interesting, less fraught route than many of the other stories, exploring another’s distress. It is poignant and subtle and handles the subject with notable maturity and empathy:
I close my eyes. No more staring. He leans forward and kisses me. Soft lips. I haven’t kissed him since we were eight. Pot and earth, like shaken-out roots, invade my nostrils. I can taste a cigarette, but I don’t know if it’s mine or his.
Other stories in the collection are similarly accomplished, raising the possibility of young adult fiction being written by young adults. Now there’s a thought.
Susan Paris is a Wellington reviewer.