The trouble with Harry, Catherine Hill

Tomorrow Tastes Better
Russell Haley
HarperCollins, $19.95,
ISBN 1869503910

The English Harem 
Anthony McCarten
Random House, $26.95,
ISBN 1869414640

What exactly is a comic novel? The question arises because comedy is the common feature of Tomorrow Tastes Better and The English Harem, yet Haley and McCarten achieve their comic effects very differently.

In Tomorrow Tastes Better, Haley continues the chronicle of Harry Rejekt’s life – first introduced to readers in A Spider-Web Season (2000). Set in the South Waikato, the novel is as “New Zild” as can be. It begins with Harry in the toilets at the Tirau Information Centre “probably the cleanest and best appointed in the whole of the South Waikato area”, about to be disappointed in his quest for his “ideal female companion – an elusive, poetry-loving vision he’d named Rosamund Wholeheart.”

Haley, whose earlier novel Real Illusions was described as “exciting and provocative”, is in his element when it comes to voice and language. It’s not just Harry Rejekt’s character that will endear him to certain readers. There’s his detailed knowledge of New Zealand flora and fauna: “Kereru and kaka hosing new vegetation down from their avian bums. All the pioneer plants, manuka and pig fern, mapou and hangehange, rushing back to occupy the dairy pastures of the Waikato and Waipa.” There’s also his memory for all sorts of weird details and his gently off-beam voice and thought processes:

The shirt seemed all right at first. It was the only silk garment Harry had ever owned. But he’d forgotten that he’d ironed it a year ago …  and he’d successfully scorched the back ….

He’d kept the shirt because silk is an ideal material for creating static electricity on ebonite rods. Of course Harry had no ebonite objects in his house but he was certainly fascinated by electrostatics. Thomas Wessen’s car had once given him a small shock as he stepped out onto the pavement in Cambridge and that hadn’t been an entirely unpleasant experience. There must be some creative use for static electricity.

 

The humour, the eclectic nature of Harry’s observations, and the vague but misdirected sensuality are typical of Tomorrow Tastes Better.

Unfortunately, however, there are passages that are far from “exciting and provocative”. For example, three quarters of the way through the novel, Harry is moved to make explicit what is already patently clear:

He was Harry Rejekt and in real life, the only one we have, he lived with his dog on a high bluff above Lake Karapiro and he was moderately content with his lot.

Of course life would be much more … desirable, yes, or even suffused with desire, perhaps, if he had a compatible female companion with whom to share what small bounty he possessed. Indeed. But in the meantime it would be good to see Sako tomorrow and give his ears a good wriggling.

 

And herein lies my problem with the book. A rather desperate and useless middle-aged man, whose life isn’t going anywhere, has only limited appeal to me – be he comic or not. As plot is definitely not a strong feature of this novel, you read it because you like Harry. I didn’t.

2

In contrast, The English Harem is all about plot, even though its main character Tracy, a young working-class English girl, begins the novel with a life as seemingly stagnant as Harry’s, daydreaming to escape it just as he does:

Her daily entertainment involved, by a small act of imagination, substituting the sullen, depressed, suburbanite customers at the Tooting branch of Sainsbury’s for famous personages from history, from television and films, and from books. Already that morning she had served Joan of Arc, Lawrence of Arabia, Princess Leia and Omar Sharif.

 

One third of the way into the book, however, she has become the third wife of Iranian immigrant and restaurateur Sam Sahar and is living in an English harem. As you would expect of a playwright, McCarten knows how to write plot and the novel romps along – which is both its strength and, when the plot doesn’t progress fast enough, its weakness.

The short, anglophile Sam Sahar falls for Tracy, marries her (with the consent of his other two wives) and, in so doing, brings the ire of the British social services upon them. This ire is largely based on the salacious supposition of how the four manage their sleeping arrangements. Just how is one man able to cope with being married to three women? For a large part of the novel this is the hook. Once I knew, my attention flagged.

Where Tomorrow Tastes Better is local, The English Harem, as its title suggests, has nothing to do with New Zealand. It is set firmly in London and has a very cosmopolitan, 21st-century feeling. Sam believes that England is the “home of all civility, the crucible of common sense, the most progressive and charismatic culture the West had to offer.” Tracy, on the other hand, is fascinated by the East and, having set out to integrate herself into a Middle Eastern landscape by becoming a waitress at Sam’s restaurant, she then becomes fully engrossed in his family, his family’s problems, and his culture (she ploughs through three versions of the Koran).

McCarten manages to make most of his cast appealing. Even the flatter, secondary characters, while not necessarily likeable, are well captured. When Tracy reacts to her racist, over-protective father with the words “Not everyone thinks like you, Dad. Fortunately. Thank goodness”, his reply, “I think you’ll find they do”, contains more than a grain of truth about the attitudes of certain sectors of British society, as well as a nice glimmer of fatherly certainty.

In contrast to Tomorrow Tastes Better, the language and style in The English Harem serve only to carry the plot and the characters. This isn’t a novel you read for the writing, yet, at the same time, the writing never seems to get in the way.

Whatever comedy is, it isn’t the be-all and end-all of either of these novels. Character – or, in the case of The English Harem, plot – is the hook that will keep you reading and, for two comic novels, both cover serious subject matter. Harry Rejekt may be laughable, but there is something sadly authentic about him. The racism to which Sam and his wives are subjected in The English Harem may be based on jealousy; it is nevertheless a reality in contemporary London.

The clearest thing I can say about humour after reading these two books is that it all depends on who’s doing it and who’s receiving it. If a comic novel is one that makes you laugh, these two novels will have very different audiences.

 

Catherine Hill is a Wellington reviewer.

 

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