City of Reeds
Penguin Books, $24.95,
City of Reeds, Tina Shaw’s third novel, is a large and accomplished work. It’s an example of a relatively new departure in New Zealand fiction: the story-telling novel. This sort of writing is common in Australia but it’s been slow to catch on in this country, where purely imaginative fiction has always faced a degree of distrust from both writers and readers. Put unkindly, New Zealand novels are seldom roomy and seldom show much emotional range.
The New Zealand story-telling novel has perhaps been done most convincingly in recent years by Stephanie Johnson, and so it may be no accident that she has a strong connection with Australia. Indeed, it’s so customary for New Zealand novels to be slim volumes of anguished, thinly disguised autobiography that often storytellers like Johnson feel the need to include a list of research books in their acknowledgements, as if to reassure readers that the imagination has not been totally relied on. Following precedent, Shaw has done the same in City of Reeds.
Thus, City of Reeds is a little unusual for the local scene, and yet this novel can telegraph its contents almost before the first page is opened. Consider the publisher’s blurb on the back:
They are the Purefoy girls, three sisters who grow up safely in small-town New Zealand and then leave. Beth travels impulsively to Afghanistan; Clare becomes a doctor and goes to San Francisco; only Louise stays home – and makes money. Living safely can have hidden hazards. Clare comes home, running away from the dangers of a disastrous affair and immediately falls in love again. Louise walks a fragile line between conventional life and the need to take risks, often of a sexual nature. Memories of violence stalk Beth. As they sift through childhood memories each sister realises that certain events have damaged them all. Will the Purefoy girls survive?
Ignore that wholly inaccurate and silly teaser, “often of a sexual nature”. But couldn’t someone, reading this blurb in a bookstore, guess almost exactly the story within, even down to the characters and how things will go? This is partly because there are very few genuinely original plotlines, but it’s mainly because City of Reeds has a waiting readership.
Most New Zealand writers still need to create their readership along with their books. Exceptions to this are the children’s book and the feminist novel. The international rise of feminism and the fact that New Zealand fiction has always been read largely by women (and children) meant that, as the New Zealand novel grew into prominence in the 1980s and 1990s, the female readership of local fiction expanded and became highly receptive to novels about women. So there’s considerable self-mythologising in claims that women’s book festivals and the numerous anthologies of women’s writing redress an imbalance – they are, in fact, responding to demand. Men may grumble, but the development of any readership for New Zealand fiction is a remarkable advance. Shaw hasn’t written a calculated book for a market, but she has written an entertaining novel for people whom she knows will read it.
With communicativeness in mind, Shaw has made her style pleasantly unfussy, even filmic. City of Reeds starts with an opening shot establishing the Purefoy family home, then it cuts inside to show Clare unpacking, then to a kitchen scene with Clare and Louise in dialogue. Clearly, Shaw’s working-method is to imagine the story in her head like a film and then write it down as lucidly as possible.
A theme is developed of small-town safety and security versus overseas excitement and danger. This is nicely summed up at the start of chapter four as, “[t]here is comfort, or there is passion – and there are shifting, accidental positions in between.” The childhood city of reeds where children play in safety disappears in adulthood – but the theme isn’t really important.
Characterisation is not of prime importance either. All Shaw’s characters tend to speak in that wordy, upper-middle-class register which rings so false in Kiwi television-dramas. Marcus’s unlikely pick-up line for Clare is, “‘What would you give,’ he wondered, stirring sugar into his black coffee, ‘for one night of pure passion?’” And what about Tupulo, a Pacific-island house-surgeon and Clare’s lover, who is highly articulate, enjoys opera and gourmet cooking and is never shy? The trouble with creating a character so completely against stereotype is that he ceases to have any depth. But advancing the narrative takes precedence over characterisation and everything else. Shaw never makes the mistake of not telling her story.
Tell the story – there couldn’t be a better motto for any New Zealand writer. Shaw steers her characters expertly through exotic locations such as Kabul and San Francisco, as well as New Zealand, because she keeps her focus on the story. Pace and interest don’t falter. And that may be why the ending of City of Reeds comes as something of a disappointment. Having remained faithful to the expectations of her readers, Shaw closes with a stock event from New Zealand fiction at its most affected. One of the Purefoy sisters commits suicide. Suicide is even more prevalent in Kiwi fiction than in Kiwi life, and both say something about the thinness of the New Zealand imagination. Non-fiction case-studies of New Zealand suicides would make much more sober and nuanced reading than the sentimentalised deaths that litter our fiction. The death of one of Shaw’s characters seems an overly convenient way to end her large book.
But big stories are notoriously hard to end satisfactorily, and this is a minor blemish. City of Reeds is sure to win fresh readers for Shaw and please her fans. That a professional New Zealand author could write for a local readership was beyond the wildest dreams of New Zealand writers a hundred years ago, when literature was a polite accomplishment for women – or even 50 years ago, when it was an exclusive club for men with a vocation. The growth of a solid readership will ensure the development of responsive writers like Tina Shaw in the 21st century, and that will expand the New Zealand novel’s range.
Ian Richards is a New Zealand writer and critic currently living in Japan.