The Skeleton Woman: A Romance
Huia Publishers, $29.95,
In a review of this, Renée’s fifth novel, the New Zealand Listener used the gratuitous headline “The one about the lesbian and the baby”. Shame on them. What it should have read was “The one about the lesbian, her lover, her mother, her father, his lover, her friend, her sister, the baby and its mother”. Cooks, thieves (of truth) and wives, not to mention international and neighbourhood terrorists, also feature.
Rose Anthony, about to turn 50, comes, as do all of Renée’s heroines, from the school of hard knocks. Tough, uncompromising and self-protective, Rose has learnt how to shield herself from betrayal, from disappointment, from – well, people really–– with defences of the Colditz kind. But all the preparation in the world can’t stop life dropping those horrifying surprises on you. Surprises like breast cancer. Like students making allegations of abuse. Like planes crashing into towers in New York. Like a battered baby being left on your doorstep. What’s a woman to do?
Set against the bleak days around September 11, 2001, The Skeleton Woman is an examination of domestic and personal implosion. The glass and steel towers Rose has built up around herself are, if this doesn’t sound too fatuous, about to be crashed into by an anonymous baby.
Let’s set the scene. Rose has had a fight with her girlfriend Olga, whom she only allows to stay overnight once a week. Rose is still grieving for her dead mother, Ada. She is awaiting the results of a competition in which she’s entered a work of art. She’s also awaiting the outcome of another breast screen. The tension is palpable.
And then she brings in the box of tomatoes from her porch to find – not tomatoes at all, but yes, a baby. And a card addressing the child unequivocally to Rose Anthony. Rose, although clearly not a baby person, takes this responsibility seriously – although she thinks it a “bloody cheek”. Apart from in the Bible and fairy tales, she thinks, people don’t really do this, do they? The baby – defenceless, demanding, deafening – forces Rose out of her comfort zone. This baby needs her. And Rose needs help. It’s terrifying.
“Why would someone leave a baby on your doorstep?” Rose’s friend Jo asks, to which Rose replies:’“Why would anyone leave a baby on anyone’s doorstep?” This exchange neatly encapsulates the central thrust of the narrative. These are the two questions Rose must answer: why her; and why at all?
The search, both physical – in real time and place – and emotional – in the realms of memory and the subconscious – drives the narrative for the rest of the book. It forces Rose to engage with the people around her, with herself, and with her past–– more, one suspects, than she has for some years. Along the way, old buried secrets are a-tapping their way out of the ground, compliments of – according to Anthony family legend – the Skeleton Woman, “Grand keeper of secrets”.
Renée’s relaxed, confiding style is deceptive. Here’s a crafty writer. Discursive, digressive, juggling half a dozen stories at once, she brings us tantalisingly close to a revelation or clue, then spins us off in another direction, to another story, another character. It’s to her credit that the other story is, more often than not, worth it. For lovers of mystery novels, there are hints, gaps, red herrings galore; for those who like vertical narrative, there’s a dialogue between the past and present that is creating a new, truthful story to replace the version Rose has always believed.
But you don’t think about all that. The effect is chatty, gossipy, coffee-on-the-couch stuff with someone, Rose – interesting, perceptive and witty – who’s inclined to share her life stories. You can ease back with your coffee and enjoy the story. You can sit up straight when arrested by an idea or image. You can laugh out loud at a pithy comment. It all seems terribly casual. Except for the subject matter. Except for the dramatic tension that is steadily building throughout.
In the end, it seems, all we have is the stories we tell ourselves. As Rose unearths other people’s stories, including her mother’s, the tales form a type of tapestry, like the wall hangings Rose and her mother do. Each piece is finely detailed, but only when you put them all together do you get the full picture. And, significantly, the picture, in Rose’s wall hanging, is of the Skeleton Woman – she who decides when it is the right time to let the secrets fly. It’s neat, this image of dancing bones.
So, the secrets are out, the mystery is solved, the baby safe. What have we learned?
Is the central theme of the novel violence, as some have suggested? Domestic, community, international? It’s telling that the one time Rose tries direct action to get her own way, she suffers from a more violent retaliation. At the domestic and community level, in this novel, the solution lies with the human face – people facing up to people and making their actions real. Might it work when planes crash into black towers?
Is the book about survival? Forgiveness? I think the answer lies in the subtitle – “A Romance”:
As she lifts him to put in the carrycot … he opens his eyes and they stare at each other. Suddenly he wrinkles his nose and smiles at her. Instantly Rose’s heart surges with pure pleasure. She smiles back. There is a moment of wordless delight in each other, and in that instant Rose falls like a stone into love. It is a remarkably clear-sighted experience. She knows exactly what is happening and is unable, does not even want, to stop it. I’ve been here before, she thinks, remembering Olga and that meeting when she wandered in. Irrevocable, this is irrevocable.
Renée’s message seems to be that life can’t be controlled, either with secrets or defences. Rose has to accept those moments when she falls “like a stone into love”, fear, hurt. What makes life, with all its hard knocks, worth it though, what saves us, is love. It’s never said out loud of course – there’s more lemon than sugar in Rose – but Rose Anthony loves Olga Irihapeti Porohiwi and through that love, when she finally allows it expression, she can love her difficult friend Jo, she can love (and grieve for) her mother, her straying father, her mother’s lover, Peter Paul Pearl. I don’t know if Rose can love the student who made false allegations of abuse against her – that is left for the Skeleton Woman and the future. But at least she can stop that incident controlling her life.
So, a little more than “the one about the lesbian and the baby”, I’d suggest. Here’s someone who can write with compassionate understanding about all types: gay and straight, men and women, old and young, Maori and Pakeha. Here’s someone who embraces our past as well as its passing (“When people moan about the good old days Rose always thinks of the dump, or the days without washing machines.”). Here’s someone who can write sweeping, domestic stories welding the personal and the political, the individual and the universal, without pontificating. Yes, there are opinions, heaps of them, but rarely do they break the trust between reader and writer.
Renée’s is an inclusive, humanist view of the world. It doesn’t deny life’s hardness or pain, but suggests that they somehow make the good bits worth it. Ultimately, that seems to be what her work celebrates: the complex, battered, but undeniably loving human spirit.
Paula Boock is a Wellington writer and editor.