Orphans and angst, Vivienne Jepsen

Ghost Net
Lynn Davidson
University of Otago Press, $,29.95
ISBN 1877276421

Swim
Jackie Davis
Penguin, $29.95,
ISBN 0143018566

Dreams Lost Never Walked
Raumoa Ormsby
Vintage, $26.95,
ISBN 1869415507

Electric
Chad Taylor
Jonathan Cape/Random House, $34.95,
ISBN 0224069268

If these four novels were read by someone in, say, Prague, they might well convey the notion that New Zealand has a high level of morbidity and mortality, orphaned children are common, everyone lives in intense personal isolation, and yearning for a lost parent is generally stronger than libido. Oh my god, as they so regularly say in American soap operas.

Lynn Davidson’s Ghost Net is a ravishingly poetic first novel, full of depth and insight, and remarkably subtle. It is also an ambitious novel. Davidson brings three of her characters out of the specific history and the immediate present of Prague, and sets them down on the coast north of Wellington (where Davidson herself lives). Here Karel, like the ghost net in his garden, has washed up many years after setting himself adrift from his wife and two young children in Prague under the Russians. Here, too, his Czech daughter Ana, having abandoned her husband and taken a holiday from her thesis on the art of the revolution, comes to meet the father she no longer knows, and introduce him to her seven-year-old daughter Ariel. Or so she says.

Her husband Milan has other ideas. He thinks she’s gone there to get as far away from him as she can. He doesn’t get as far as questioning why that might be, but then he doesn’t like the way she “carries questions around like baggage”. Ana maintains that Ariel has “a right to meet her grand-father”. “What about my rights as her father!” Milan retorts. It isn’t a question. In Milan’s eyes it’s all about him. But then he makes a living restoring old masters, while Ana wants to live in the freedom of the present.

Ana does have her own reasons for meeting her father. She is reluctant to question him openly and she retreats into a sometimes tiresome, silent interrogation, as if she has deliberately confronted Karel with his granddaughter to test his response:

Karel lifted Ariel’s hand up and shook it gently, “You were like this when I saw you last”, he smiled at Ana.

“Yes, I know,” Ana answered, not smiling.

“I’ll need time, to get to know the new, grownup Ana,” he said gently.

Ana felt anger chopping up her breath. More time. She looked at the pale blue sleeve of his shirt, she saw that where the shirt sleeve was rolled back his skin was slack on the bone. How much time did they have? she wondered. Karel touched her back with the flat of his hand and she flinched with surprise. “Let’s go and buy iceblocks,” he said, “there’s a dairy up the road.”

As though they were all in this together, Ana thought. As though she were his ally too.

 

Ana is so angry about Karel’s abandonment of her as a child that she apparently forgets to be surprised by words like “iceblocks” and “dairy”. Their conversations actually take place in Czech – though Ana has an extraordinary facility with English – but she registers little in the way of cultural surprises. After three days in the country she is already familiar with the notion of “taking to the bush like a real New Zealand man”. Ana is a little too much at home where Davidson is.

But this is a carefully written, much researched book – perhaps too careful, too researched. We may be left feeling that it’s all  a bit contrived, a bit too self-conscious – especially in its principal character. In some ways, Ana’s mother Eva and her best friend Kristina back home in Prague have more life on the page – even though their secret envy is drawn more crudely. Ariel,  tantrums and all, is irresistible. But Ana herself remains resistant and unresolved, and we fear that her choices may lead her back into a claustrophobia that, as her father’s daughter, she will be unable to tolerate.

Karel, finally at home in his coastal kitchen garden, where “the buried carrots and potatoes, green fists of broccoli, the lumpy beans, all seemed to hold their breath”, buries the ghost net (like a placenta), but the umbilical tug remains like pain in a severed limb. This really is a terrific first novel: the work of a writer with a gift for understatement, lyricism and startling observation.

2

Swim, Jackie Davis’ second novel, takes us to Gisborne where another solo mum has grown up missing a parent. It’s Maya’s 37th birthday, and she’s sharing it with eight-year-old son Charlie, buying herself a present and eating ice-creams on the beach. Money’s a bit tight, but Charlie seems like a very normal kid, and Maya seems an average sort of woman.

But lurking in the casual details of the first few pages is the black birthday bra with “its dark and slippery shine” in a bag labelled Dangerous Curves. And in the dark recesses of the eftpos machine there is “the man … with his quill of black ink that went scratch scratch”, as it adds up what’s left in her account. Is Maya dicing with death? All it takes is the sight of a man and a boy walking along the beach, to bring to the surface what Maya has been “burying” for seven years – the death in a crash of Charlie’s father Philip. Dark and slippery? Dangerous curves? If it’s true that “every seventh wave is bigger than the rest”, it might be a matter of sink or swim for Maya – even before the itchy black bra leads to the discovery of breast cancer.

Like Davidson’s novel, Davis’ might seem to be arguing that sole parenthood is a too perilous business, but Maya doesn’t have any choice – though she has her less rational moments when she blames Philip for having chosen not to pull through. Maya (like Davis) is a nurse, so she ought to know better, but they both seem to think that survival is dependent on the choice of sinking or swimming. Whether or not Charlie becomes an orphan is a matter of belief.

Few sole parents are going to be as desperately isolated as Maya is. She has no friends except Kathy, an old friend from nursing training who is also her sister-in-law. Charlie has no grandparents and only one aunt. There are Maya’s work colleagues, but they take themselves off to the other side of the patient-professional divide. There are Charlie’s school friend’s parents, but they are easily alienated when Charlie begins to prefer their company to his sick mother’s. And when we get to the heart of it, we find that the matter is not a seven-year grief, but one dating back to childhood when Maya’s own mother died of breast cancer and she had to go and live with her heartless Gran. Maya wants her mother more than anything else in the world.

Davis manages to convey the horror and banality of illness without alienating the reader. With patience, rather than pace, she details the progress of Maya’s treatment, her struggle to maintain her autonomy and keep Charlie, to deal with the accumulated grief and the fear that threatens to overwhelm them both. And the ending, is a satisfying one – even if, like Davidson’s, it leaves some of the big questions still troubling us.

3

Raumoa Ormsby’s first novel Dreams Lost Never Walked continues the theme of lost parents, but here something more malignant than either cancer or claustrophobia is at work in the making of orphans. Poi (boy) Paki, born along with his dead twin, inauspiciously, outside the pub the night Cyclone Bola hit his East Coast village, is an orphan-in-waiting from the moment of his conception –  a rape at a wedding in the local pa. His father, a te kiore (Rat), was “an outsider, an interloper who did it to [Poi’s] Mum at the back of the meeting house then shot through”, and vanished into “the mist” (died) before Poi’s birth – as did his mother right after it. Now Poi, raised by his grandparents, has left school and is waiting to hear whether he’s been accepted by the army.

So Dreams Lost Never Walked is a coming-of-age novel with a title that promises something mistily tragic. But it loses its way early on. It sets out to be somewhere between rural-Kiwi-joker comedy and serious social realism. The humour doesn’t work – not on any level – and the social realism sinks too easily into diatribe and then suddenly soars into romantic fantasy, but without any sense of pace or tension – or even motive – to drive it. Ormsby’s villains are simply brain-damaged psychopaths. His Maori women are helpless victims. His heroes, apart from the stereotypical Watson (almost a dead-ringer for Bert on Always Greener), are just more likeable villains.

Pop is Poi’s “Genie” and Poi wants to be like him, but this genie seems unable to magic away the injuries that happen all about him, some of which can be laid directly at his own door. Is his inaction the result of wisdom, or have his past mistakes destroyed his confidence to be an effective father or elder? Or is it, as Ormsby himself would have it, that Pop, being Maori, has been subjected to “decades of feeling that [his] language and traditions have been trampled on and are of little or no value”?

No matter. Who needs a hero when page 130 introduces the deus ex machina in the form of a blonde goddess in a BMW, a tough-girl lawyer with heaps of time to sort out the family’s legal problems – especially since she’s got the hots for Poi’s Uncle Mo. So is this really a fantasy novel? Or an “issues” novel? Well, I’m an issues-novel sort of reader. I even think “holocaust” is not too strong a word for what colonisation did to Maori. But I expect a novel to know its way and keep its reader up with it. This novel is all over the place, and Pop’s sordid little secret provides no ultimate coherence. There is the basis for a good story in here, and Ormsby has some skill as a writer, but this could have used a lot of critical editing and rewriting to get it on track.

4

The sizzling exception among these novels, Chad Taylor’s Electric, is a thinker’s thriller with an unreliable narrator and dubious, but memorable characters whose propositions are provocatively undecidable. Sam Usher is not looking for a parent, but he is most definitely an orphan. After a smash at/on speed (and every other drug available) effectively removes the other half of the only connection in his retrievable memory, Sam is left totally friendless, out of work, but slowly settling into “a nice little routine”, having “scored some good shit with the insurance money”. His “only memento” is the scarring on his right shoulder where embedded glass shards continue to usher themselves painfully, in little pustules, to the surface.

The scene is an overheated Auckland in which Asian flesh is cheap, drugs are hard currency, it seems always to be night with “kids” everywhere, and all the lights going out. It’s Auckland, yes, but not as we know it. The novel is prefaced by apparently hard, factual information in Courier typeface, and we all know about Auckland’s power crash and its unidentified corpses found in cars. But this is an Auckland with all the NewZild removed, nothing Polynesian. Even the footpaths have become “sidewalks”. Everyone has surreal names and international connections. We have to wonder if it’s all a bad dream long before the Chrysler Building starts appearing or Sam starts looking for Mr Goodbye. And we may be reminded of David Mitchell’s “Number9Dream” long before the end makes its Japanese connection.

But where Mitchell’s Eiji Miyake, looking for his unnamed father, gets a job in Lost Property, Chad’s Sam, looking for something he’s apparently unable to name, gets a job in Data Retrieval from a guy he meets in a bar. And even though he’s overworked, he sets about the unnecessary task of sifting through the data he retrieves from all the crashed computers, looking for clues about the people behind these failures. One day he sees “this wonderful thing …. a single formula” which leads him to a new life, an obsession with Candy and Jules, a couple tilting deludedly at the cutting edge of science. He also adopts one of their “friends”, the shady Lars Dedit, who turns out to be (as his name might predict) a kind of godsend, another deus ex machina, when he appears in Grafton Cemetery “in his white suit, stepping between the headstones like a traveller searching for his seat on a foreign bus”. It may seem as if Sam has a death wish, but it’s really just that he has some unorthodox rebirthing techniques.

It might be stretching things to read Sam in reverse as a would-be Ma’s boy, but his touchingly trusting habit of sucking up any white stuff offered to him by very mortal strangers, like the tired Helen Anyway, comes very close to the desperate infant:

I sucked hard. I wanted to trash everything I had known. Everyone was gone now and I was the last one left. I was sobbing on their behalf. She tapped out more for herself. Her face became mine. I was crying because I was her, because she was tired and alone.

 

It’s not just the sex+drugs+alcohol=death/womb: Sam has a routine with speed+car+water=waterbirth. But this isn’t a novel to be reduced to or by any recognisable formula. It’s a fast read with a flashy surface and print large enough to see by candlelight. It’s a novel with enough depth to fascinate the slow, careful reader.

 

Vivienne Jepsen is a Wellington reviewer.

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