Short lives on earth, Rebecca J Davies

Life on Earth
Sue McCauley
Vintage, $26.95,
ISBN 1869415493

Bernard Steeds
Penguin, $27.95,
ISBN 0143018353

The Chandrasekhar Limit and other stories
Sugu Pillay
The Writers Group, price unavailable,
ISBN 0473087316

There is a common misconception that big themes require the space that only a long narrative provides. Yet both Tolstoy and Chekhov alike are fêted as masters of their craft, virtually unparalleled in their ability to portray a cross-section of 19th century Russian life. In the hands of a master, then, the short story can be something of an art form, a veritable tour de force. Each of the collections of stories here reflects the efforts of three authors to translate and perhaps reconcile the terrible, wonderful events of our life on earth. What they have in common is that this literary form paradoxically affords them the room to be both expansive and innovative in their prose, ideas and structure.

In the best tradition of colonial literature, their brief inroads into the eternal if prosaic themes of love, loss and belonging are set against the New Zealand landscape and the fierce cycles of nature itself. These are commonplace parables of finding love and comfort in the most unexpected of places. The books are joined by an unerring focus upon life’s rich circle, the courage it takes to find faith and a precarious balance amid the primitive chaos of nature.

As a self-confessed champion of the ordinary, Sue McCauley’s collection is rooted in the everyday events and small details that permeate the fabric of all human relationships. In a more ambitious collection, Bernard Steeds evokes Larkin’s lost connection between religion and water to draw upon the murky, suspended quality of time and events that pervade displaced lives. Sugu Pillay pulls outside of the narrative itself to investigate all the pernicious and empowering aspects of the exile so fundamental to the immigrant experience.

Within McCauley’s appropriately titled collection Life on Earth the reader is witness to the most ordinary, impenetrable and striking aspects of our connections with others. In “Footnotes” she traces the ebbing circumference of a relationship from within the confines of a bed. Instead of skating the flimsy surfaces, she delves deeper to unravel the turmoil that lurks below the thin veneer of an ordinary existence. The lives of her protagonists are often brutally interrupted by the cycles of birth, love, marriage, and death. In these uncharted depths living is itself an act of exploration and sometimes defiance; a kind of journey “not exactly predictable”.

All of a life is compressed within a paragraph or sentence to give these stories a weight and resonance far beyond their length. The relationship between mother and daughter in “Life on Earth” is reduced to a single object, a pale blue taffeta dress that is “proof of Audrey’s mother’s dislike. Or at least her permanent disappointment.” Visiting her dying father in hospital, another daughter is “defeated by the sheer weight of rejected sentences” in “Parental Leave”. In a single moment, McCauley ably captures the singular event, conversation or touch that comes to define the entire trajectory of a relationship.

The rituals of love here supply the fine tissue of experiences that ultimately create a life. Ironically, romance is rarely for the young. The couple in “Lambs” is absorbed by their own needs. Both make unlikely sacrifices for their unborn child and in order to attain an uneasy domestic equilibrium; “the smell of his home – flowers and baking” that are “not to be cast aside lightly”. Another husband decides upon patience, writing secret lists of the things that his wife “had, over the years, needed in order to be happy”. Yet this immense capacity for human suffering is somehow, inexplicably, balanced by love. Burdened by the loneliness that follows the death of his wife, an older man reflects in “Caster Sugar” upon the “way she would touch him as she passed, or suddenly take his hand in hers”.

Many of McCauley’s characters are flailing beneath the weight of suppressed anger, loss, and a quiet desperation. Remembering the “trauma and public sense of failure” wrought by her divorces years later, one woman considers “the merits of murder”. McCauley’s prose hits a perfect pitch in these stories: sharp, mature and observant.

The tiniest of details are drawn to the centre so that, dreaming of escape, an ungainly teenager sees the cap sleeves of her dress “stick out like little wings”. A writer is finally and brutally aware that his daughter and wife have borne the cost of an unremarkable literary career. McCauley is concerned with the people we become through others; about what brings us together as much as the centrifugal forces which set us apart. The note of possibility that she sounds in parts of this collection surrounds those rare moments of happiness and comfort to be found in rejecting the burden of forever: the touch of a child’s hand, and the slow, stolen moments before a kiss.

Steeds perhaps best exploits the possibilities of this literary genre. Each story in his collection is linked by the water allegory as different stages of the water cycle become simultaneously the prism and medium through which relationships unfold. There is little new in this watery world where everything is fluid and fragile, at best fleeting or illusory. As water changes its physical state, so the transformation of love echoes the momentum of this natural cycle. The narrative moves easily between teenage memories, the anatomy of a failed marriage, lives fractured by loss, and the contours of pain; at every level water intrudes.

In the opening story, an elderly man looks back on “a life spent swimming” and the trajectory of his marriage played out against the rhythms of the sea. From their first meeting during a midwinter swim race to their last, imaginary journey along the waterways of Europe, the ocean has proven this couple’s emotional compass. Sitting with his dying wife, he promises: “We will swim down the Seine wearing striped swimming trunks that stretch to our knees. From Paris, we will head out into the countryside, past the golden palace of Versailles, through Fountainbleau and Dijon.” It is proper, then, that he is at last drawn back to the sea, to a bay blooming with roses “rising and falling with the tide”, swimming so far out “he will not have the strength to go back, because he has been fooled by love”.

Mourning the death of a child that never was, a man derives succour from his view of water and a river’s flow – “like time passing” – in “River Story”. The passage of years finally allows grief and also forgiveness in the unblinking stare of his baby son. In “You Make A Life”, the vast stretches of the Tasman represent the distance that has corrupted the relationship between father and child, but simultaneously delivered love to an estranged son. For the couple in “The Sea As Past”, the many meanings of water again symbolise division; between an absent husband and father who recognises “the contents of history” in its murky depths, and a landlocked wife who has divined secrets “from the veins of her hands, faint mauve rivers under the web of her skin”. This is a brave collection that is characterised by a remarkable range and maturity.

Once again exploring the everyday cadences of love and belonging, Pillay brings an abrasive, exciting intellectual edge to the exercise in The Chandrasekhar Limit and other stories. She draws the cycle far wider, drawing in science, theory and fiction to paint vivid expressions of exile among New Zealand’s ethnic Indian community. An inspired collection, it pitches the reader, poetry, science, Malaysian cuisine, the Common Blue Butterfly and alphabet dreams against a discourse on memory, truth, and the nature of the narrative itself. It is a heady, disorientating and compelling mix.

If this collection is somewhat self-conscious, the themes more inscrutable, it is because Pillay questions the “observer’s stance, the hermeneutic circle Einstein had tried in vain to straighten”. The border between object and subject is bruised irredeemably; cultural spaces are unstable and schizophrenic; poetry and science clash over the “real self”; and reality or truth is carried entirely in the history brought to the act of reading. The author pursues these huge abstract riddles – the arts/science dichotomy for one – with a healthy dose of humour, irony and Hindu mythology.

In “The Chandrasekhar Limit” the narrator observes her own romance as she “walked deliberately from a hundred years of Gujerati isolation and curved herself around his yielding back”. In “Madame Taoist Butterfly”, our narrator has metamorphosised into a butterfly “watching you, watching it”, in order to better examine “the metaphysics of presence”. The wife tormented by strange dreams in “The Word Pitcher” realises she must put herself further into the canvas as a “determined inhabitant of space”.

The focus of these collections is comprised of the many elements of love that shape the boundaries of our existence on earth. Each author comes to the same truth about the human condition: the suffering, which flourishes beside joy, the abject misery to be borne against the vistas of an unyielding and glorious nature. The most extraordinary mysteries of this life are then to be found only in another, and in our surrender to the strange rhythms of this humanity.


 Rebecca J Davies is an Auckland-based lecturer and reviewer.


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