Notions of paradise – nirvana, Shangri-la – are universal to human societies, because they are, of course, simply expressions of that most basic of human faculties, hope. Just as we live our lives entertaining dreams and planning ways in which to make them better, we also long for a time and place where all our plans are realised, when all our dreams come true. All of us recognise that such a state of being is fantasy, but that doesn’t stop us dreaming. For who can live without faith in the notion of a future that is better than the present?
This is the pun upon which the title of Thomas More’s Utopia pivoted: Utopia is at once a perfect place (eu-topos) and non-existent (ou-topos). And this is the tension that lies at the heart of the tradition of “utopian” literature, which more often than not compares the reality we settle for with the perfection we can envisage.
Tina Shaw begins her fourth novel, Paradise, with an emblem of the contradiction internal to the concept of utopia. We meet the main character, Claudia, as she hunts for a snake that has been sighted in the lush undergrowth of Paradise, the resort she manages. This obvious symbol sets the tone for the novel, in which there are several versions of utopia, all of them flawed. Claudia’s ambitions, while largely realised – she has gone ahead in the Pasqua organisation that employs her, and the future looks brighter still – have had repercussions for her daughter, Jo, who has grown up with her mother’s near-total absence. When Claudia is kidnapped while working at another Pasqua resort in East Malaysia and held for ransom by Filipino rebels, her own dreams of career and a happy marriage are derailed by the trauma she suffers. When Jo and her partner, Tod, begin receiving “free money” from an anonymous benefactor, placing all their dreams – including, for Tod, that common Kiwi fantasy of owning his own business – within reach, their hopes are cruelly dashed by an accident that leaves Tod paralysed. Not even the supremely egoistic project of Pasqua herself – of creating a perfectly controlled, artificial paradise in which to live while practising scientific techniques that arrest ageing – is immune: it is thwarted by the murder of a resort employee that threatens the viability of Paradise, and more fundamentally by the sheer grotesqueness of lingering into a great age.
The paradox is evident elsewhere, too. The island of Jolo, upon which Claudia and her fellow captives are held hostage, is everyone’s idea of an unspoiled tropical paradise, “the kind of place that in your deepest dreams you’d like to go to”, but being unspoiled, it also boasts the full range of nasties – snakes, scorpions, disease, to say nothing of human malice. And while the Filipino terrorists’ project is not made explicit, it is presumably the clash of their vision of utopia with that of the Western tourists they have captured which gave rise to the kidnapping in the first place.
Despite the novel’s title, the widely deployed symbolism of utopia, and the teasing allusion to New Zealand’s own tradition of utopian literature – the successful, career-oriented Claudia’s surname is Vogel, surely in honour of Sir Julius Vogel’s Anno Domini 2000 or Women’s Destiny – Paradise is not about utopia. Nor, for all the scientific detail with which it creates an alternative present (the year is 2002), is it one of the dystopian visions that have been popular in recent New Zealand literature.
In fact, just as Paradise the resort is nestled in a recognisably New Zealand landscape, Paradise the novel offers a view of a familiar Shaw. For the central problem for Claudia is exactly that which confronts the Purefoy girls in City of Reeds, and Barry in Birdie: namely, “how to reconcile the past with the present.” Claudia’s experience on Jolo has precipitated a questioning of her life’s direction, a crisis of faith, and in Shaw’s cosmology, faith is the currency with which we must pay our way in this vale of tears. For Shaw is a realist, and if she has resorted to the imagery of paradise, it is simply to underline the extent to which our lives are made bearable only through denial. The resort, Paradise, is the contrivance of an individual who is in denial about the central truth of the human condition – that we grow old and die. But the other characters are similarly in denial: the way forward for Jo and Tod is to ignore the range of possibilities that were open to them but are now closed; Claudia realises that the satisfaction she derived from her life before Jolo depended upon her wilful blindness to the phoniness of the whole concept of tourist resorts, and to her incompatibility with her husband, Tony.
Since Paradise is not, contrary to first appearances, a major departure from Shaw’s earlier work, it is possible to make comparisons. For me, it is not as satisfying. It employs a very similar structure to her previous novels, telling its stories episodically with many shifts of timeframe and glimpses into the consciousness of several characters. The risk that an author takes in running a double narrative is that if one thread proves more compelling than the other, then the weaker thread will become little more than a distraction.
So it is here. The past, the unfolding drama of Claudia’s Jolo experience, with its narrative and sexual tension, is so much more compelling than the present. Life in Paradise is rather static, a fairly robust line of humour notwithstanding, and while the languor is appropriate, the novel is diminished by it. I was unconvinced, too, by the moral questions that Claudia asks of Pasqua when they finally meet: the damage that Jo and Tod have suffered from Pasqua’s paternalism is simply too remote.
Or was it finally the lack of plausibility that spoiled it for me? Is it that, in the end, admirer as I am of Tina Shaw’s fine realism, I just couldn’t believe in Paradise?
John McCrystal is a Wellington writer and reviewer.