Essential New Zealand Short Stories
ed Owen Marshall
There isn’t any compromise with essential, and not much leeway either so it was a relief to read the introduction and find the editor’s explanation for using it in the title: “I sought stories that stand tall in the company of our very best short fiction, and are essential in that sense.” He discusses the place of the short story in our national literary tradition, the paradox of its continued, though sometimes precarious, survival at a time of growing demand for the blockbuster, and those elements that distinguish it from the novel. In the course of defining the short story, he quotes William Gass: “It is a poem grafted on to sturdier stock.”
Like any editor of a collection like this, Owen Marshall had to make some hard choices. There are 45 stories arranged chronologically from Mansfield to Quigley, and the year of publication is shown beside each title. I read them mostly in sequence, and nearly one third were previously unknown to me. Fantasies, recollections of childhood, stories of love, abandonment, loneliness and isolation are all included.
The first story is “The Doll’s House” and as I read it, I recalled an interview, broadcast during the 1950s, with the surviving Beauchamp sisters, in which they spoke of their early family life when they were growing up in New Zealand. But the true subject of the interview was their famous sister. As children, these women had been the inspiration for Kezia’s sisters, Isabel and Lottie, both silently complicit in the incident of playground cruelty, and who, later in the story, were to leave the coast clear for Kezia to invite the Kelveys into the courtyard to see the doll’s house. The story itself was as fresh as when I first read it, but this time I remembered those three elderly women explaining their parents’ treatment of their wayward sister, and as I made the unflattering connection with their literary identities as Kezia’s sisters, I wondered how much resentment they felt because of it.
All the stories in this collection were published during the last 80 years, and the prevailing social conventions and the political issues of the times are more evident in some stories than in others. Wars and their aftermath played a significant part in early 20th-century New Zealand life; yet they feature in only two stories. Fiona Farrell’s “Airmen” was written in 1985 but the tragedy of Jim, the former Flying Corps hero, occurs in the years following World War I. Rex, in Greville Texidor’s “Home Front”, is a veteran of the Spanish Civil War but underlying the story is a portrait of a restless man subject to bouts of depression.
Using the sharp eye of the child observer, to view incidents arising from domestic circumstances, has long been an effective way of telling a story. The closer one comes to the present day, the more difficult it seems to be for adults to conceal what lies beneath the surface. The grandson in David Ballantyne’s “A Leopard Yarn” (1963) is caught up in the action of the story but he is less aware of the true nature of the adult world than Charlie, Lloyd Jones’ narrator in “Who’s That Dancing With My Mother?” (1991). Charlie observes his mother’s anger as his father drives away, and later, as she glides onto the skating rink, he notices that “her eyes were concentrated, as if trying to find her way back to some partially lost feeling.” A stranger moves towards her, and the crowd watches silently as they move together. Charlie wonders about his father, but his eyes never leave his mother and the stranger. He is a perceptive observer of his mother’s emotions, aware of the troubled state of his parents’ marriage, but the full implication of what he sees escapes him.
The short story form lends itself to glimpses of solitary, isolated characters – fiction’s outsiders. Maurice Duggan’s Miss Mary May Laverty and Albert Wendt’s Miss Willersey both live in close physical proximity to others but when faced with the need for “a little human warmth”, Miss Laverty knows she must shift for herself, and Miss Willersey finds only passing comfort from one of her boarding school charges.
There is a kind of hopelessness in the early stories dealing with the hardships of the poor, and except in O E Middleton’s “The Doss-House and the Duchess”, there seems to be no relief. The Kelveys are isolated because, in their neighbourhood, it is poverty that distinguishes them. In “After the Depression”, Maurice Shadbolt describes an overnight train journey taken by the family of an industrial agitator who cannot get work. Their destination becomes yet another place where he will not find employment. The story illustrates the high personal cost of commitment to an unpopular cause, a cost that must also be borne by his wife and child.
The marooned seamen of “The Doss-House and the Duchess” are broke and without papers. At night, they doss down at the Mission, and during the day they wait around, and while they wait, they share what they have – cigarettes, food, gossip, and news of ships needing crew – any ship bound for any port. “The trouble is that once we are at sea again, we forget the mean faces, the false hearts, the ugly lives. And sometimes too, we forget the friends of our poverty …”
“The Quiet One”, one of Dan Davin’s stories about growing up in Southland, involves a love story gone badly wrong. After a Saturday night band concert, some small town boys go on the lookout for girls, and although Ned is with them, he knows he is not quite one of the group. His cousin’s girlfriend dies following a botched abortion and Ned becomes the messenger who brings news of her death. In witnessing his cousin’s grief, Ned realises how life can be a confusion of good things and bad – “that half the time we’re thinking one thing, feeling another and doing something else altogether.”
Love is more various and complex than the familiar combination of anguish and sexual passion. The Blackies’ lifetime commitment to each other in “The Silk” is in marked contrast to the eroticism of Ngahuia Te Awekotuku’s “Mirimiri”, and to the obsessive need of the abandoned wife to catch a glimpse of the Other Woman in Sue McCauley’s “The Natural School of Beauty Therapy”. In Peter Wells’s “Outing”, Eric indulges Perrin, in spite of his capricious behaviour, because he loves him.
Underlying the stories of Patricia Grace, Bub Bridger and Witi Ihimaera are deep personal attachments. “The Game of Cards” recalls the last days of Nanny Miro’s life: “What a haddit mokopuna you are, she wept. It’s only when I’m just about in my grave that you come to see me.” The sitting room of her house was “crowded with the kuias, all puffing clouds of smoke, dressed in their old clothes, laughing and gossiping about who was pregnant.” Nanny loved card games and before she dies she wants a last game of cards with Mrs Heka, her best friend and worst enemy.
“I hope I’m not another of those poor buggers who get discovered when they’re dead.” Prophetic words. Fame eluded Ronald Hugh Morrieson during his lifetime, and in “Cross My Heart and Cut My Throat” he creates the chaotic world of an unrepentant drunk. But this is no ordinary hangover story. It reveals a life lived beyond the bounds of sobriety where even lust is subordinated to the need of the next drink. Clad in his overcoat, the sleeves of his pyjama jacket visible, the guitar teacher offends against nearly every accepted code of behavior, yet the gesture made by his young guitar pupil is unmistakable. She swears she will disclose nothing.
I sometimes wish the heavy moonlight that flattered the walls of the Totara Eventide Home would restore to me the critical detachment that vanishes when I come face to face with the indignities of old age. In “The Rule of Jenny Pen”, Owen Marshall exposes them more chillingly than any writer I know, but for this particular collection I would have preferred his “Trumpeters”, which is the tragedy of a man who is more complex than he appears to be. In deference to the wishes of his “glowing, chatty, impulsive wife”, he makes a choice, and when he does, he loses part of his soul.
Owen Marshall’s intention was to bring these stories together for what he suggests is a “group snapshot at the beginning of the 21st century.” The themes of the stories are broadly based and the collection represents the imaginative response of 45 writers to a remarkable range of human experiences. Together, in this attractively designed, well-bound book, they represent the essential body of work he had in mind.
Rosemary Norman is a former public librarian who lives in Wellington.