the shark bell
Halfway to Africa
University of Otago Press, $24.95,
The Shark Bell is the story of a summer in the late 1960s St St Clair’s Beach, Dunedin, told by Edmund, a solitary speculative boy. He watches how his mother turns her body towards her husband “as a sunflower turns towards the sun”, and wonders whether Rufus is his father. He wonders why his mother is keen on curtains, and why she sometimes lies on her bed with a wet face-cloth on her forehead and “cries, sobs and wails”. The awe of living in a place where the earth stops and the sea “rushes in” is equalled only by his fascination with sharks. “I long to see a shark,” he says. His longing is prompted by the rusty Shark Warning Bell, which dangles temptingly from a jarrah pole down on the beach. If there were no bell, there would be no longing. “Summon the shark,” Edmund chants to himself.
Edmund’s watchfulness has developed partly as a response to his mother’s habitual evasiveness, and partly because of his need to savour what he observes: “Mrs Zacek was a Czech. (I thought of her as a Check).” It is this watchfulness which provides an ironic texture to the narrative. Edmund is excessively aware of his mother, whose sensuality is suggested by descriptions of her feelings for Rufus, and the ravenous tenderness with which she envelops her son on his return from school each day. In his search for a friend, he meets Jake Stein – “Jacob. (Ya-cop)” – who plays the piano and whose mother is reputedly mad and has numbers on her arm. On the day when at last Jake comes inside Edmund’s house, and is teaching him chess, Jake’s mother arrives to collect him. As they stand in the street, Mr Zacek, Edmund’s next-door neighbour, touches her lightly on the shoulder as he passes. Mrs Stein screams and seizes Zacek’s lapel. Why Edmund wonders, does Mr Zacek say, “‘You must be mistaken?’”
Every character has a secret. Almost all have adopted a new name for survival purposes, and for much of the story the secrets are like holes, absences, silences within the characters, or like the sharks Ed imagines circling beneath the water, waiting for him to summon them by ringing the bell. Johnston sustains a deft control of Edmund’s childlike fascination with the sea, and his knowledge of sharks, with the inexorable exposure of the grown-ups’ secrets.
Inevitably, the evocation of a childhood summer in a small town in New Zealand is one of familiar foreboding. The smallest images – a mouthful of pins, the sound of a door closing, the sudden intake of breath by an old man watching the sea – suggest tension, repression, and ultimately fear of exposure. The day comes when Edmund sees the shark “cutting the surface of the green sea, peeling back the skin of the water”. But it is Mr Zacek, a sort of surrogate father, who orders Edmund to ring the bell, and the fact that he’s not tall enough to reach the rope (and must climb on to the railing) emphasises the significance of the task and his loss of innocence. With “schnell” pounding in his ears – “I’ll run like Peter Snell” – the jarring clamour of the bell releases the characters’ secrets. These turn out to be intimate yet universal. Edmund reflects that he “hadn’t understood how personal was the history of the world.”
In the last section of the novel, Johnston’s grasp of a quietly poetic story slips. The action has always been sliced by time-shifts, and some of the most vivid images of times past are lucid and mysterious, but Edmund as a middle-aged man loses his charm. He has evolved into a gay psychotherapist familiar with Freud and Jung. Knowing about his lovers doesn’t deepen our response to the novel; in fact, the knowledge diminishes it, because these additions are colourless distractions. As his mother surrenders to sickness, the narrative surrenders to explanation. Johnston’s strength in The Shark Bell is the convincing creation of a likeable boy whose observation wars with his naivety, but through whose eyes a larger, more complex world is perceived.
Bronwyn Tate’s third novel, Halfway to Africa, could perhaps be described as a family saga. It’s a domestic novel set largely in Auckland, in summer, with references to the Sky Tower and the America’s Cup Village, but it also swoops down to Christchurch where hot winds desiccate old gardens concealed beneath bracken and blackberry. At its core is the relationship between two sisters, born only ten months apart – “almost twins”, with their own language. As the novel opens, Monica, the elder sister and nearly 40, is driving to the airport to meet Catherine whom she hasn’t seen for 17 years and who has been living in Australia.
Distance and time haven’t eroded their closeness; so Monica pretty soon guesses that Catherine has a secret (“You’re in love, aren’t you?”), and, moreover that she is pregnant. Catherine tells her that her lover is a “Nordic god with a gorgeous salt and pepper beard and thighs like an All Black prop.”
Catherine’s pregnancy pitches the novel backwards and forwards. It triggers an examination of the sisters’ childhood in a nameless seaside town where their father was a fisherman and their mother perpetually pregnant. They remember her as always bent over beds or babies, yet filled with gratitude for the weekly glimpse of the sky and the ocean, snatched as she shepherded her children to and from Mass. Their mother’s fortitude contrasts with the way in which her daughters will deal with marriage and children. For pregnancy is the novel’s primary concern. Catherine’s late conception forces the girls to remember their messy student lives where sexual exploration was bound by the fear of becoming pregnant and sticking out “halfway to Africa”. Catherine is determined not to be the passive creature she sees in Monica: one who lives in a “nice” house, whose marriage exists in a “smooth” state where joyless sex occurs once a week.
Men don’t do well in this story. George the fisherman is mostly away at sea, Kit the optometrist supposedly playing golf, and Aiden the main chap is a bankrupt gardener living with his father in Christchurch. He’s always at the base of the sisters’ consciousness, although not seen for 20 years. Aiden is a wannabe writer, and when we first meet him he’s staring at the moon, pen at hand. Tate tells us he’s “interested in the process of thought, the transition between the conscious and the unconscious”:
Aidan’s thoughts have come full circle. His attention was on Eros to begin with, until the moon drew it away. And now the moon has led him back. He writes Eros on his page, although the name has little to do with his subject. Eros, himself, is a distraction … Its similarity to Iris appeals, the connection not too tenuous. It is a romantic notion that Iris coupled with the West Wind in the vast expanse of the heavens. Aidan’s mind offers images of flowing draperies, long unruly hair, and a partner without substance. Iris, he writes. Ares, Aries, Eris.. Orris. Orris root, he writes, finding his thread at last has a long and fascinating history … [my italics]
Halfway to Africa has similar problems finding a thread. Bronwyn Tate has said her writing deals with relationships: how “the headspace available to those who are young … is gradually replaced by commitments and reality, at least for those of us who have children.” I felt some sympathy for her portrayal of the relationship between adult child and ageing parent; but even these relationships with their acceptance of mutual fragility – between Monica and her mother, say, or Aiden and his father – seemed superficially (although affectionately) explored. Flick, the lost child, and the missing link in the sisters’ history, is also Tate’s examination of today’s youth. Here the young are homeless in varying degrees, have fake names, such as Strobe, Quint and Lulu, squat here and there, steal as required, and have sex in alleys.
What makes this novel ultimately unsatisfying is a prevailing sense of insecurity. It’s as if Tate is not sure enough of her words but must keep overexplaining: “He watches the shadow of his hand crawl across the page as he traces the letters, a lumbering life-form, dark, velveteen, fluid. A shape-shifter which owes its life to the too-bright desk lamp.” Rhetorical questions clutter the text and reinforce this sense of unease:
Monica wonders if the potential for everything we are about to become in our lives is born with us. Was this funeral, this reunion, mapped out that night in Christchurch when she left her caustic note for Aiden and was spirited off to hospital by Aiden? Perhaps the night she was born, Theresa screaming, the matron contemplating her crossword? Or the night Theresa was born, bringing an end to her parents’ intimacy, initiating the grief which would cause Basil years later to turn to drink? And so on, in perpetuity.
Indeed. Tate strives too hard for effect. Her writing lacks an assured quirkiness that would transform it into something persuasive and particular. These two novels make for a somewhat invidious comparison. What distinguishes The Shark Bell is Johnston’s eye and ear for the reverberating image (“Hazel has drawn a veil over a volcano.”) – the very quality absent from Halfway to Africa.
Catharina van Bohemen is an Auckland reviewer.