Running from the past, Zoe Prebble

Replacement Girl
Ann Beaglehole
Tandem Press, $27.95,
ISBN 1877178985

On a Distant Island
Denis Baker
David Ling, $24.95,
ISBN 0908990790

Replacement Girl, Ann Beaglehole’s first novel, is a story about memory, and what is not remembered; about belonging and not belonging; and the relationship between the two. It begins with protagonist Eva, in her early 30s, as she clings to the wreckage of a defunct marriage to the thoroughly Kiwi Douglas. The crisis of their separation throws her into “abandonment panic” and is the catalyst for her to reflect on her life.

From here, the novel is made up of a series of remembered episodes which jump back and forth in time and place. We glimpse Eva’s escape from Hungary with her parents after the Hungarian revolution in 1956 and her subsequent 1950s-1970s refugee life in Wellington. We watch Beaglehole’s Jewish Hungarian characters, cope, and fail to cope, with their new lives in New Zealand.

As a young immigrant, Eva’s cultural identity is confused – neither fully Hungarian, nor a real Kiwi. Her New Zealand contemporaries suggest her refugee identity is something to be “gotten over”. As the adolescent urge to blend leads her towards assimilation, she works hard to forget the past.

For the older refugees, memory is a strong link to their history and identity. They appreciate New Zealand as a safe place to bring up children, a haven. But they are city people, urban sophisticates; in New Zealand, they become school cleaners. The adult refugees are cognisant of their new country’s deficiencies, and the locals’ unnatural fascination with DIY and sport: “[I]t is difficult … There is little to do unless you go to church or play sport … But there are a great variety of churches and sports to choose from.” The constant tension is between nostalgia for home and relief not to be there. Memory is a comfort, but also a barrier to assimilation; “Do you remember?” is their persistent refrain.

Replacement Girl deals with some sombre subject matter, but also has very funny moments: notably, Eva’s embarrassment at the picture theatre (when the audience stands for “God Save the Queen” and her mother shuffles in her handbag for bits of toast); and an unfortunate incident involving a pig’s head in a synagogue.

Occasional gaps in the characterisation of the adult Eva are slightly jarring. Comments from several characters about her personality came as real news to me. It is no good Douglas telling Eva – well into the novel – that he’s leaving her because she has always been an unhealthily anxious person, when the first hint of this was only a page or two before. Such lapses in continuity mean the portions of Replacement Girl dealing with Eva’s adult life strike a less successful note than the childhood passages.

The book’s language is plain and unsentimental. It reads like non-fiction, and you don’t need to have read much more than the thumbnail biography on the cover to get the idea that the novel is heavily autobiographical. Details of Eva’s emigration from Hungary and refugee childhood must have been drawn from Beaglehole’s own experiences, and the adult Eva’s cv seems cribbed straight from Beaglehole’s own. Indeed, a number of events in Replacement Girl are recognisable from Beaglehole’s non-fiction, and some portions of the novel seem to be essentially her most evocative anecdotes strung together. They are indeed choice picks, but the resulting narrative is fragmented.

Although, the disjointed structure does not make for an elegantly shaped novel, the structure is not incompatible with the subject matter. Memories quite naturally tend to float to the surface in self-contained, context-less form. If a person really were to sit down to reflect on her life, probably her thoughts would look a lot like Eva’s do here.

2

On a Distant Island is another first novel about people running away from their pasts, but these are refugees of a different kind. Denis Baker’s characters are on the run not from political or religious persecution but from more personal jeopardy.

Paul has been living in London for 10 years when his long-term relationship with partner Angela comes to an abrupt end. He decides to get the heck out of the Northern Hemisphere, and returns to Auckland, his home turf. All this, to avoid an “incessant round of talks” and relationship-post-mortems: “why do women always want to know how something feels?” Ignoring Ange’s phone calls, Paul is after a fresh start. He sees New Zealand as an island sanctuary, and about as far from his problems as he can get.

In Auckland, Paul meets Susan, then UK ex-pat Larry and his friends. Larry’s Lake Taupo bach becomes the hub of the intersecting relationships in which Paul finds himself. Larry is in New Zealand to get away from something too, but it’s pretty clear that whatever he left behind is worse than an awkward break-up.

Initially, the characters appear to have made successful retreats from their histories. At the Lake, though, Paul and Larry fish, and talk. Slowly, Larry reveals his past, and we learn more about Paul’s own story. It becomes clear that the retreat is temporary: it’s a small world – a “little atom” where eventually every particle bumps into every other. Paul works in web design, a modern-day world shrinker. He finds that, even in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, the past is only ever a phone call or a plane ride away.

Both On a Distant Island and Replacement Girl are concerned with the experience of the outsider. Despite obvious differences between New Zealand life now and in the 1960s, Baker’s travellers and Beaglehole’s refugees share basic similarities. Baker’s characters are cultural outsiders in London, Cairo and the Pacific Islands. Returning to New Zealand after his very big OE, Paul doesn’t know anyone. He doesn’t talk like a Kiwi, and he doesn’t feel much like one either. When Eva returns to Hungary as an adult, she has a similarly disconcerting homecoming, finding not a “beloved homeland” but a “strange place”.

Each book reaches similar conclusions about the past and the role of memory. In the end, both suggest that the past is resolute, and it must be faced. At times, Baker labours this theme, signposting it with heavy-handed dialogue. We know the book is about leaving the past behind when Larry remarks to Paul, “You’re kinda starting a new life, aren’t you?” We know it’s about facing up to the past when someone delivers the line, “It’s about time I set us all free [from the past].”

If there are a few clunky lines, the plot is nippy enough to speed you past without tripping over them. Baker has control of his material and he teases out the story with an even hand. The suspense is real, and the game isn’t totally given away until the last few pages.

Like Baker’s short stories in Floating Lines, this is a book about men, and it is the main male characters that really come into their own as three-dimensional personalities. There are plenty of women, but these are really supporting players, who tend to be mildly idealised types. Take the slightly otherworldly, slightly cloying Simone, who is mainly silence and wisdom behind that “veil of hair”. As for Ange, it’s hard for a character to say, “No really, let’s talk” for the umpteenth time and sound like much of an interesting person.

Of course, the story is mainly from male points of view, and secondary characters are never going to be the focus, so it’s fair enough that the blokes get most of the best lines. If the author’s real interest is with these male characters, it is just as well that his real strength lies there too.

 

Zoe Prebble is a Wellington reviewer.

 

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Posted in Fiction, Literature and Review
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