A Passing Guest
In A Passing Guest, Elspeth Sandys bravely tackles contemporary New Zealand issues which many Pakeha authors shy away from: Maori and Pakeha relationships, Maori poverty, gang culture, and family breakdown.
The novel interweaves the stories of two characters, Renate Anderson, a Pakeha writer recently returned to New Zealand after a decade spent in England, and Max Nene, a Maori man whose life is characterised by abuse, gangs, and crime. Renate meets Max at Paremoremo prison, where she has volunteered to tutor creative writing. They strike up an unlikely friendship, and Max gradually reveals information about his life to Renate both through talking and writing. Max turns out to be a talented writer, and his emerging ability is convincingly shown in the extracts from his prison writings.
However, the friendship is doomed from the start (so to speak), since the novel begins with Max’s death in a car crash. Renate is devastated by his death, and it raises many questions for her. Why does his life end so tragically? Why are deaths like his so common amongst Maori men? How does this reflect on New Zealand society? The main thread of A Passing Guest involves Renate’s largely fruitless search for answers.
The novel seems to imply that we are asking many questions about our bicultural society but do not as yet have answers. The title perhaps suggests that all of us are “passing guest[s]” and that only through the passing of time can solutions be found. Right now all we can do is put the questions.
Sandys begins with an apt quotation from Rilke:
Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves … Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them.
Renate seems to be living the questions in her pursuit of the answer. After Max’s death, she finds that while he often lied to her in their conversations, in his writings he told the truth. Indeed, one of the philosophical themes of the novel is the nature of truth and the importance of writing as a means of expressing it.
The novel interweaves Renate’s first-person narrative, which provides the structure for the book, with Max’s diaries. This technique illustrates the distance between Renate and Max despite their friendship; however, it is somewhat off-putting for the reader to keep switching between first-person accounts from two such different characters.
A Passing Guest is no easy read. While the questions promise much, the lack of answers proves frustrating – no doubt intentionally. More seriously, I found myself losing patience and sympathy with Renate as a character. Her endless self-analysis, wondering, and remembering eventually become annoying.
While her search for justice for Max is in many ways admirably altruistic, it is clear that her real goal is self-exploration. The friendship thus seems somewhat self-serving on her part. She more or less takes Max on as a project, inviting him to classical music concerts and helping him to find a job after he leaves prison. The fact that Max later becomes material for her new novel rather confirms these suspicions. What Max thinks of the relationship is never made clear.
At times, Renate’s relationships with the other characters seem not altogether plausible. For instance, it is hard to believe that Max’s family would be quite so patient with her as she continues to prise out information about their history and their troubles. Furthermore, Max’s character seems underdeveloped. We never get a real insight into his feelings, into what motivates him. Given that the book consists largely of Renate’s memories of Max, perhaps this gap is meant to show her failure, ultimately, to understand him. It has to be said, too, that his diaries read rather like a series of clichés, almost at times like a parody of a deprived Maori upbringing: abused childhood, poor literacy, recruitment into gang, life of crime. But then again, perhaps the diaries seemed clichéd because such horrors occur all too often.
There is no question that A Passing Guest raises valid issues, but in the end it does not amount to a satisfying novel.
Kirstie Archer is a Wellington reviewer.