Light reading, dark lives, Margie Thomson

The Denniston Rose
Jenny Pattrick
Black Swan, $26.95,
ISBN 1869415612

This highly readable historical novel has already had a big thumbs-up from readers, and it’s not hard to understand why. It’s a darkly engaging story that almost constitutes a new kind of disaster novel, so many tragedies (and so little happiness) does it contain. It offers strongly drawn characters who announce themselves boldly and without artifice; there’s a wild, dramatic environment, and genuine historical interest (although, as we shall see, this becomes a bit muddled).

The Denniston Rose comes to us under Random House’s Black Swan imprint, specifically created for lighter reads. So, yes, it’s melodramatic and plot-driven, but I don’t see that as a problem – it doesn’t claim to be anything else.

This is Pattrick’s first novel, and it’s obvious she understands how to use language. Her writing is concise, vivid, and uses evocative imagery (Rose disappears into the crowd “like a silverfish in a box of handkerchiefs”; Denniston is “an anvil” and all who go there are “beaten to new shapes”).

Her unusual narrator’s voice functions almost like a documentary camera, with the slight emotional distance that implies, pointing first here, then there, conjecturing and reporting community opinion, so that we’re not always sure exactly what happened, but only what was said about it. I enjoyed the narrator’s consciousness of being involved in a mythmaking process, and of a story as a many-sided, incomplete thing.

What finally rankled, though, was the illogic that develops in some of her main characterisations, as Pattrick effortfully wrestles her plot to its tragic finale, and her replacement of actual historical figures with inventions of her own.

Set in the coal-mining settlement of Denniston, perched on a plateau 2000 feet above the Waimangaroa River, north of Westport on the West Coast, the novel documents the early years of that small town in the early 1880s, when it was just a collection of huts and tents connected by muddy tracks. It’s a fabulous place in which to set a novel, and I’ll bet there are lots of literary writers out there who wish they’d thought of it: bleak, windswept, isolated, the only way up by a terrifying, almost vertical ride in a coal-wagon cable-car. Some women were so traumatised they stayed on the plateau for 25 years, too frightened to come down.

The main story concerns a five-year-old girl, the eponymous Rose, who arrives with her prostitute mother to live with Rose’s supposed father, one of the great losers of the settlement, one-armed alcoholic Jimmy Cork. The mother, Lenie, is hateful, violent, manipulative and selfish; but the child – intelligent, charming, although, as Pattrick reveals with great psychological acuity, believably disturbed – becomes loved by all. The drunken battles between Rose’s parents can be heard all around the settlement, and so Rose is taken in and fed by her neighbours, although not protected from repeated sexual assault by the man who will become her stepfather after Jimmy dies.

Pattrick makes a theme of community: the matter of creating one in a new place where all are disparate newcomers; and what community means, in terms of interdependence and responsibility. Rose’s predicament thus serves the author’s interest nicely as well as greatly engaging readers’ sympathy and disgust. Through the neighbours’ response to Rose, Pattrick can demonstrate the community spirit that she clearly believes resides in most people, even rough-hewn ones; but it also enables her to pose important questions about community responsibility in the face of child abuse. “Surely! Surely we are all responsible,” laments Rose’s schoolteacher.

Pattrick’s characters show promise, and there are demonstrations of real psychological astuteness, but in the end the author simply doesn’t trust her own creations, and they slavishly fall into line behind the plot, weakening the book in the process. Six-year-old children behave like adults: where dramatic change is required of a character in order for the plot to move forward, change they do.

Con the Brake, one of the strongest characters and a decent man, suddenly deserts the woman who is “the joy of his life” to go off with Rose’s prostitute mother. He is just one of several men to lose self-control when propositioned by Lenie, yet we know she’s horrible, vicious, and has greasy unkempt hair. I just couldn’t take it seriously, and that undermined my belief in much of what happened in the final chapters.

My other gripe is with Pattrick’s replacement of actual historical figures with inventions of her own. This is a shame, because mostly Pattrick deals well with her historical material. She’s done a lot of research, yet she filters it gracefully into her story. That is, her characters inhabit their various environments – natural, social, industrial, domestic – comfortably and naturally, without the self-conscious slathering of detail that we often see in historical literature.

But surely if you’re writing, as Pattrick is, not just about a certain period but about an historical event like the first New Zealand miners’ strike, led (as Pattrick tells us in an historical note) by one John Lomas, a Methodist lay preacher, collier and English unionist, who had for a while been stranded in Nelson and shut out of a job with the Westport Coal Company because it feared an outbreak of unionism, you must stick to the facts. It’s not quite on to create a completely fictional character with all these characteristics, call him Josiah Scobie, and tell us that Scobie, not Lomas, was the strike leader. I can’t imagine giving this treatment to the 1951 lockout and replacing Jock Barnes or to the suffrage movement and replacing Kate Shepherd – and so it must surely be with poor, neglected Lomas. What we end up with is something peculiar and unsettling: “true” history, with many details reproduced as faithfully as possible, yet utterly untrue because all the actors are imposters.

It’s an interesting point: had Pattrick, for instance, used Lomas himself she would still have had to invent him to a certain extent – get inside his head, make up dialogue – in a way an ordinary historian cannot do. And yet that would have felt like a more “real” rendition of events. You can add deputies, bit players, taggers-along, and witnesses, or create parallel actions, but you can’t mess with the big guns of history without creating a great deal of confusion.

 

Margie Thomson is an Auckland reviewer.

 

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Posted in Fiction, Literature and Review
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