People like us, Jane Westaway

Holy Days
Joy Cowley
Penguin, $34.95,
ISBN 0141004169

Breakwater
Kate Duignan
Victoria University Press, $24.95,
ISBN 0864734174

Floating the Fish on Bamboo
Adrienne Jansen
HarperCollins, $24.95,
ISBN 1869503988

Domestic realism is the meat and potatoes of contemporary fiction. So it shouldn’t be disparaged because it’s not cordon bleu – because it doesn’t dazzle with literary mischief, or deal in magic and evil, because it has no place for intricate plots or shock endings, and features no monsters, only people like us.

Which is not to say it dodges the bad things that happen to good people. Far from it. Death stalks these novels as it does our lives, the supreme baddie. Behind it come serious illness and injury, infidelity and other unwise sexual adventuring, birth, poverty, violence, unkindness and prejudice.

Cowley’s eight-year-old protagonist has lost his mother to cancer and seems to be gaining a desperately unwanted stepmother. Duignan’s Ella faces a lonely and unlooked-for pregnancy; middle-aged Louise watches over her comatose daughter; and young Chris grapples with the consequences of his sexuality. Jansen’s newly widowed Jo struggles not just with her own and her son’s grief, but with the torment of not knowing exactly how her husband died or even if he’s definitely dead.

Within the first pages of each of these novels we come to trust the author’s good intentions. She holds out a hand, looks us straight in the eye and offers to show us what life is like just down the road. We have a strong sense that she loves or at least likes her characters, and will not sneer at them or be wilfully cruel. Which means she likes us – the reader – too, and will not mock our emotional responses or toy with our expectations.

And what do we expect? To get closely acquainted with one or several characters; to learn what makes them tick and what threatens to stop them ticking. To cheer them on as they come through the fire, older but wiser – or at least, at peace. Happy endings we don’t expect, for these are not “realistic”. But we do want a sense of closure, a resolution that takes account of life’s vagaries and disappointments but offers some hope.

2

Not surprisingly, since Cowley’s is her seventh novel for adults, Holy Days is the most engaging of these three. Experience tells: in the clear, unfaltering voice of eight-year-old Brian Collins, an eccentric kid who hangs out with nuns; and in the skill with which Cowley tells what is, at bottom, an unlikely tale. 

The bulk of the novel is set in 1980, but opens with adult Brian, teacher and amateur poet, having his account of what happened with the nuns dismissed by a brittle young television type. She is the embodiment of a good deal of what Cowley believes is wrong with the world, and a counterpoint to the three elderly nuns whose simplicity, humour, kindness and care enfold Brian for most of the novel. At its end, Brian tells his wife:

Jude, she was a symptom. She reflected the malaise of the entire media in this country. Corruption is newsworthy. Goodness is irrelevant … They wanted a scandal. They wanted me to write lies. This is how they shape the minds of youth and then, you know, they use the results to provide themselves with more material. The entire country is caught in a cycle of negativity engineered by the media.

 

Well, yes, we do know, and these contemporary bookends strike a jarring note. Susan is a straw woman; adult Brian has become po-faced; and Cowley’s purpose is too plainly spelled out.

Never mind: younger Brian’s story is winningly told. To a dispassionate observer – his sister, a derisive schoolmate – he’s a pious little greaser; to Cowley and us, he’s a kid struggling with loss. His grief for his dead mother is expressed in his elaborate imaginative world: he is obsessed with holiness, indulges in excessive confession, and thinks constantly of Heaven, of his mother Up There, making scones in the back, chatting with Jesus and Mary, and interceding for her son.

The three nuns live in a dilapidated convent, last survivors of a disappearing order. First sent there to do chores as a penance for the trumped-up sin of “blasphemery”, Brian becomes the sisters’ dependable odd-job man, and comes in turn to depend on their kind attentions, and the peace and routine of the convent. When the bishop orders the building sold, Brian – threatened with yet another loss – prays for a miracle. Instead the nuns arrange one for him: a visit to the snow. Brian’s shining mental image of a phenomenon he longs to experience first-hand has been fed by his father’s stories of a trip to Antarctica, and overlaps with his picture of Heaven. The scene with the deliriously happy Brian and three grey-habited nuns throwing snowballs is the climax of the novel, and one that cries out to be filmed.

This novel gently extends our notion of domestic fiction by focusing on an eccentric main character intent on his own quirky spiritual path. Sure, it’s sentimental – these ageing women who’ve lived together for decades never show a sign of irritation with one another. And though the reader is relieved that Brian’s hard-pressed father only wants the best for his son, the additional sweetness of his new stepmother is rather hard to swallow.

But Cowley sails past other traps, and Holy Days is funny and touching. No food is prepared, no chore completed that doesn’t push the story on or round out a character. It’s beautifully written, with enough fresh imagery per page to get our attention, never enough to clutter the story or make us doubt a kid’s-eye view.

3

Kate Duignan – a first-time novelist from the Victoria University creative writing programme – takes a bigger risk by constructing her story from the points of view of three characters, none related by blood, but all closely tied.

Ella – studying zoology at varsity, and another motherless child – discovers she is pregnant, and is befriended by larger-than-life Tessa, who offers a place to stay. Louise is Tessa’s divorced mother, the middle-aged, caring, slightly careworn co-owner of Breakwater, a café on Wellington’s south coast. And finally there’s Chris – admirer of Tessa, sometime best friend of her unpredictable brother Jacob. The birth of Ella’s baby bonds those attending it – Louise, Tessa, and the baby’s father, Andy. But shortly afterwards, Tessa is seriously injured in a car driven by Chris, and as she lies comatose, her recovery uncertain, the group of family and friends threatens to fly apart.

Not surprisingly, Duignan lacks Cowley’s practised charm; nevertheless her prose feels “easy”, and she has a talent for characterisation. Ella remains opaque (it’s not clear why she is compelled to reject Andy, a caring young man with whom she lived happily), but Chris is an achievement. Young female insight into male sexuality is rare, and Duignan shows us a youth struggling to be decent. Louise is the star of the book – a thoroughly believable woman in midlife whose natural maternalism extends towards a virtual stranger and her baby. Her brother Kevin, a socially unskilled but kind-hearted fisherman who puts in hours at Tessa’s bedside, and Jacob, her clever but mentally erratic son, are also convincing creations.

There’s a sense, though, of Duignan’s entering these characters’ minds and looking at the world through their eyes to see if she can. Their overlapping accounts suggest interdependence – the idea that none will pull through alone – but don’t quite add up to a satisfying picture. Breakwater is a slice of life rather than a vision. But it’s written with a quiet confidence and maturity that belie the author’s years, and if VUP published this first novel partly in the hope of securing those that may follow, it looks like a smart move.

4

Floating the Fish on Bamboo is the least successful of these three novels, mainly because its author’s eagerness to teach her characters – and readers – lessons in life runs too close to the surface and saps the vitality of the novel.

Newly bereaved Jo and young Matt settle in a house by the sea, grappling for a foothold on a new life. Alongside live a cast of characters all doing likewise, and all, like her, partially captive to their pasts: her kindly German neighbours, still haunted by the war; the misanthropic violin-maker across the road; the cheerful Cambodian refugees in whose restaurant she finds work.

Jo struggles to earn a living and bring up Matt, with loneliness, and uncertainty about her husband’s death, with her hoonish brother-in-law who refuses to accept her version of events, and with other people’s losses and tragedies. Trying to help others recoup their losses becomes her way of healing. And it’s not until she’s on the brink of flying to Thailand in search of someone else’s missing husband that she realises it’s herself she is trying to help.

At its best, domestic realism deepens our understanding of family and friendship – the comfort and conflict they promise. Its most powerful spell is its inclusiveness – few of us fail to recognise these settings, these families, these crises. Its risks are a lack of imaginative flight and a lowering of the horizon. Tension and freshness – essential ingredients of memorable fiction – may be dulled by banality, as if the author had come down with a bad case of suburban neurosis.

Towards the end of Breakwater, Chris faces a showdown with the enraged, unstable Jacob. He and the reader expect the worst. But Duignan veers off, defusing the incipient drama and disappointing the reader. Possibly it’s all in the good cause of “realism”. But this sliding away from confrontation, in life and fiction, is as New Zealandy as its inevitable companion — the random outbreak of violence.

Jansen is the only one of this trio to show an uglier aspect of life – in this case, a racist attack on an Indian dairy owner. The attack happens off-stage, thereby muting its effect on the reader; but it does counteract the faintly claustrophobic sense of decency pervading these novels, the feeling that they’ve issued from the We Ought To Be Nice To Each Other school of New Zealand fiction.

It’s interesting, too, to see how New Zealand fiction has domesticated that black beast “society”, which once threatened to crush the life out of your average creative bloke. Contemporary domestic realism treats society as a neutral backdrop against which individuals must learn to flower. The rest aren’t against us; it’s we who sabotage ourselves. Our mythical journeys are interior now, and the prize is self-knowledge. Within a few generations, this convention may seem hopelessly quaint. But right now, we seem happy to swallow it again and again.

Perhaps it’s an important function of this sub-genre to show how people like us cope: the fictional complement to self-help books, if you want to be snide. Theorists may groan at the notion of fiction as a guide to living. The fancy stuff – The Vintner’s Luck, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, Tulip Fever – may periodically charge up the bestseller lists. But readers continue to display a hearty appetite for the domestic literary staple.

 

Jane Westaway is a Wellington writer.

 

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