The old frisson Elizabeth Caffin

Billie’s Kiss
Elizabeth Knox
Victoria University Press, $29.95,
ISBN 0864734263

Having begun in some reasonably recognisable New Zealand locations, Elizabeth Knox, novelist, may, we now know, take off and land almost anywhere. What is striking about all her work is the total conviction of the imaginative world she creates. You feel she knows every detail of this place, even those not mentioned, and that she moves around it with such ease and comfort that it acquires a powerful reality for the reader too. In such a world, there is no distinction between “fact” and “fantasy”, and as in the make-believe of a child, invention and investigation intermingle. No supernatural beings intervene in her latest novel, Billie’s Kiss, but an invented drama slides into a place and a time we can loosely call the Outer Hebrides in 1903, as if that landscape, sequence of events and cast of characters have a single imaginative force.

It’s an interesting choice – an isolated rural spot far from the metropolis, an island reached by a hard sea voyage, subject to colonial domination which has severely altered a traditional way of life, which cannot be undone and which is deeply resented. The character of James, Lord Hallowhulme, represents a critique of the Wakefieldian coloniser’s plots and plans, the land and rock and sea as quarry, the people as putty. The period is the dawning of a new century with promise of bold scientific innovation, a confidence that technology and design can solve human problems and bring about social improvements.

This certainty of her fictional world derives partly from the disarming lucidity and fine judgement of Knox’s writing style, sentence by sentence, line by line. Its visual clarity is extraordinary:

The harbour was nearly empty, all the fishermen still out, and from the road along the point the long stone pier seemed crowned with frozen grey smoke – the skeins of drying nets. These seemed to have a catch of shadows – old men standing behind and plying awls to mend them.

 

Along with its physical particularity, this language catches with the same simplicity and accuracy the spaces between people:

 

Billie was taken to the doctor’s house where they found Henry wrapped in bare wool blankets, before a fire, and smelling powerfully of both liniment and brandy. Billie sank to her knees beside his couch, but found herself unable to touch him. There was something between them, it seemed – or nothing between them, an impassable barrier made of an absence.

2

We enter this world chiefly through the eyes of two outsiders, Billie Paxton and Geordie Betler. Both have been suddenly bereft of a sibling in a disaster in Stolsnay harbour early in the book. Both subordinates, dependants in a class structure, they also bring their pasts with them in their encounters with the Hallow household and its connections on the island of Kissack and Skilling. The novelist is thus adjusting to a new territory, uncovering a complex set of family and social relationships and exploring a process of self-discovery in these two central characters. Billie has brilliant red hair and can swim and sing; but she cannot read. Her physical and instinctual gifts – sudden flight, sudden passion – her ability to survive, or stay afloat, along with her limited capacity to understand, make her a wonderful figure and one whose growing realisations the reader shares.

For all its intense clarity, Kissack and Skilling, like its name, is a contrived world and the novel an elaborate and highly polished artefact. Though she is never in sight, the author is performing with style and panache everywhere. The book begins with the dramatic explosion on the Gustav Edda, in which fifteen people drown. A complex plot gradually uncovers the reason for this tragedy and its perpetrator; a second reading of the book clarifies the carefully laid clues and the construction of false leads. The handsome, arrogant, tormented Murdo Hesketh plays the Sherlock Holmes (about whom one of the characters is reading) of this aspect of the novel. He moves from being a harsh, intimidating presence for Billie and Geordie to a strong and honourable hero as he emerges out of layers of suffering, and as the narrative increasingly gives us his view as well as a rational explanation for the explosion.

A whodunnit at one level, at another Billie’s Kiss is a grand 19th-century romance: the initially haughty, repressed hero Murdo (aka Darcy, Mr Rochester) and the humble, beautiful, spirited heroine Billie eventually overcome misunderstandings, a life-and-death crisis, the temptations of others. Potent words appear in italics as the author mocks and revels in the pleasure of melodrama, with the villain struck by a Zeppelin, and a jet watch fob carrying a secret till the end. This is a book constructed around not one but several kisses, almost all showing the ambiguity of the title, in which Billie either kisses or is kissed, or once or twice is not kissed when she might have been. Here a kiss carries its old frisson, a plunge through a social barrier into intimacy. Twice Billie flees, so disturbing is the prospect offered, and the narrative takes a sudden lurch. Eventually though she learns how to “choose whom to kiss”. (There is much play with this word throughout – James Fallow lives in Kiss Castle, and Knox executes a dazzling variation on the theme of kisses and their categories in a remembered conversation between Murdo, aged 12, and his cousin Clara, 18. It is hard to imagine why the title was changed for the US edition.)

There is some other literary business going on. Running alongside the story is a play by Shaw being performed by Minnie Hallow and the other young people. It includes a character called the Patriarch, who is a “social experimenter” like Lord Hallowhulme, and who is played with a nice irony and some textual liberties by Geordie the butler. The play that is the novel begins on the island, takes its course there and is concluded elsewhere. The island is the stage as in The Tempest – Shakespeare is another hidden player – and its action proceeds through a number of almost formal scenes, such as the dinner scene in which Lord Hallowhulme reads the Reverend Vause’s letter to Billie, or the scene at the salmon hatchery, or the climactic scene at Ormabeg Abbey. The action lasts a summer, recalling another Shakespeare play, a leisure interlude away from the real world: “Kissack and Skilling were play, whereas London, Edinburgh and Port Clarity were business”, the island the place where Hallowhulme has “purchased a whole population as playmates”. But he finds a real play, where people only pretend, outside his control. In due course, James Hallow’s grand design fails and we take from the novel the theme adduced of Shaw’s play: “any overarching idea if pursued rationally is productive of evil”. And yet, and yet … the notion of novelist as artificer cannot be entirely absent either from this superbly crafted work, which deals so deftly with imagined lives.

More nuanced patterns follow the course of loss and recovery. Characters in mourning, their lives distorted by grief, find an awkward, inarticulate identity – Billie, Geordie and Murdo Hesketh. There are many deaths by drowning – of Edith, Billie’s loved sister; of Ian, Murdo’s man and Geordie’s brother; of Ingrid Hallow, the eldest child of the Hallow family, by suicide at Scouse Beach. It is at Scouse Beach that Murdo thinks to save Billie from drowning, but she is swimming, as she was years before when she played dead for her father. There is death as retribution, as Murdo’s brother-in-law Karl Borg is destroyed by execution; as Murdo’s own life is twice threatened; as Rory Skilling falls dead down the tower steps at Ormabeg; as Lord Hallowhulme is finally extinguished. But the patterns change, as Billie saves Murdo from death; as Murdo spares James Hallow from the law’s retribution for Clara’s sake; and as Geordie saves Murdo likewise. Loss becomes love and forgiveness, and order is restored: Billie floats on her back in the calm, warm sea of the Mediterranean.

3

After a slow but promising start, Elizabeth Knox has now found an audience and has them in the palm of her hand. Her talent is prodigious and one sees the enormous delight she takes in finding out what she can do with it, in trying new subjects and approaches, playing a wonderful game. Her own excitement about the act of creation, of making fiction, pervades all her novels. She has her readers entranced too. Perhaps what they are waiting for is a more mature talent, a more moving, stirring power. But that will come. The progress of her career is surely one of the most fascinating aspects of the contemporary literary scene in this country.

 

Elizabeth Caffin is the Director of Auckland University Press.

 

Billie’s Kiss has been shortlisted in the fiction section of The 2002 Montana New Zealand Book Awards.

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