A stitch-up, Louise O’Brien

Hummingbird
James George
Huia, $34.95,
ISBN 1877283665

The Mango’s Kiss
Albert Wendt
Vintage, $34.95,
ISBN 1869415809

Hummingbird, James George’s second and very readable novel, recounts the unlikely convergence of four sharply drawn characters, who, for very different reasons, find themselves on the endless beaches of New Zealand’s far north. Jordan is a tattooed ex-con, acting as temporary caretaker of a holiday park eerily bereft of campers. Kingi is a mathematician and elderly WWII veteran, stranded on Ninety Mile Beach by the vagaries of a vintage plane, a stop-over which interrupts his journey halfway round the world to keep a decades-old promise. Kataraina is a former prostitute, nervously delaying her long journey home after a self-imposed exile.

Each character is alone and desolate, having abandoned those they love, or having been abandoned themselves. And each is engaged in a project of renovation or repair, in which sanding, painting and decorating become activities which both represent and assist their slow and often painful emotional rebuilding. The bonds which form between these three are enhanced – and disrupted – by the arrival of Leonie and her small daughter, searching for a family to make her feel whole.

Throughout, the emotional isolation of the characters is set against the vastness of Northland’s beach, described in evocative prose. The dunes and surf of the coastline constitute a moving and powerful presence in the novel, serving to simultaneously underline both the rootlessness of these wanderers and their desire for home. Each of the characters demonstrates an affinity with the detail – texture, smell, taste and feel – of the land and sea: Jordan is a surfer who buries himself in the waves; Kataraina walks barefoot to sit, sifting sand between her fingers; Leonie paints magical, whimsical treescapes. In that sense, it is a very New Zealand novel, the setting particular and precise. It is also a very detailed novel, domestic almost, where the normality of the everyday – especially cooking, eating and drinking – acts as the social bond which brings together very disparate individuals.

A conversation in the novel offers an interesting metaphor for this unification of distinct characters. In a discussion about the authorship of the tales usually attributed to Homer, Kingi suggests that “his poems were composed in snatches by dozens of people, later being assembled into one body of work”. To which Kataraina replies, “Like one of those quilts you hear about, where all the women of the town get together to each make a bit.” To make the quilt which is the novel, then, the characters who make up the pieces are carefully sewn together, joined by the thread of the overarching themes of emotional damage and recuperation, to compose a single, coherent body of work: three discrete individuals united in a trinity.

The shape and form of the novel can also be thought of as quilted, deftly stitching together different narrators and time-frames to create what becomes a single story. As well as the third-person narrator whose voice binds the threads of the novel together, each of the characters offers a first-person narrative, their name entitling the separate segments of the book. The multiple narrators, voices and perspectives relay events which span a period of over 50 years, moving backwards and forwards through different times and phases of their lives, their memories of the past interrupting their accounts of the present, and doing so seamlessly.

But here’s where the metaphor breaks down, the quilt revealed as an inappropriate model for a novel, no matter how skilled the sewer. Because in a novel – and not, I’m easily persuaded, in a quilt – it’s often desirable to be able to see the stitches. In Hummingbird, the stitching together is often too neat and too quick. While the body of work is whole and complete, the pieces dovetailing neatly one into one another, the threads which bind the characters cannot be seen. Their isolation and defensiveness are initially so convincingly represented – as is the strength of the bonds which later come to bind them tightly together – that the movement from the former to the latter is neither obvious nor easily understood.

This abrupt emotional shift – especially in the character of Kataraina, whose desire to protect herself from further hurt is so compassionately drawn – causes the only moments of awkwardness in an otherwise fluent and confident piece of writing. The hard-bitten, ill-used ex-prostitute says to the taciturn, unresponsive ex-con: “’Will you let me … will you let me care?’” By that stage, I was already convinced that she was no longer able to care, and didn’t see much lovable in his behaviour towards her, even if his first-person narrative did betray hidden depths. Perhaps I’m a poor judge. I don’t understand the attraction of Heathcliff, either, though I do know what attracts Catherine to him, and that’s what’s missing here. I want to understand why such dissimilar pieces of human fabric have come together as they have. And so, for me, the novel remains a patchwork quilt, patterns and colours meeting suddenly, apparently arbitrarily, in which the neatness of the seams frustrates my desire to understand the process of construction.

2

The Mango’s Kiss is, at first glance, cut from quite a different cloth. Albert Wendt’s latest novel is a family saga, beginning before the advent of the 20th century and spanning the lives of three generations of an extraordinary Samoan family. In one sense, The Mango’s Kiss is simply the very detailed and individual tale of one woman’s coming of age. Pele is the adored and gifted daughter of the pastor of the small and remote village of Satoa, destined for a life she cannot accept. But her struggle to balance the personal demands of love with her duty to both a beloved family and a tight-knit community are set within the complex social contexts of colonisation and Christianisation, and set against a backdrop of momentous historical events, including the Spanish influenza epidemic and WWI. Thus, Pele’s story becomes the epicentre of a vaster saga which also ripples outwards to reach Apia, Auckland and even Europe, and backwards through the myths and memories of her ancestors.

Stylistically, Wendt’s narrative form and approach are similar to George’s: multiple and individual stories are brought together to form the larger, single whole of the novel. In The Mango’s Kiss, more of these stories are textual in nature (rather than the purely personal accounts which make up Hummingbird). Wendt’s novel includes many writers, singers and storytellers, as well as books, stories and narratives of all kinds and from many cultural origins: European fairy tales and Samoan legends, songs and hymns, wills and diaries and confessions, academic scholarship, Biblical stories, sermons, personal memories and histories, spiritual fables, and novels. Stories, we’re told, are “vital to continued survival”; “Stories, that’s all we are and continue to be after we die.”

But these multiple parts are never entirely discrete, nor distinct from each other. Rather, Wendt blurs the origins, the ownership, and even the content of these stories, to create the whole: the “web that [held] together the aiga, the village, the land and everything that was in the unity.” Each story is already and always indistinguishably bound up with another, retold, for instance, as dinner-party conversation, or used as a metaphor. A mean Samoan stepmother invites comparisons to Cinderella’s. A novel in English is given to Pele’s father to read, who translates it for his children, who retell it like a fagogo for their own children and grandchildren.

Stories are altered, subtly, even wittily, and appropriated to the larger purposes of the novel – the body of work always in control of its components. Robert Louis Stevenson thus appears in the novel as a writer called Leonard Roland Stenson, who lives in Apia and is the author of an adventure novel called The Island of Treasures, while Margaret Meade and her infamous study of Samoan sexuality returns in Wendt’s novel as Professor Mardrek Freemeade, a Harvard anthropologist who becomes the centre of a sexual scandal.

While I find the staccato rhythm of Wendt’s bald prose often jarring and sometimes unsubtle, his use of language consistently echoes the themes and form of the novel. Samoan and English coexist in the prose, the Samoan untranslated and thus undifferentiated, yet usually transparent in context. The two languages, as well as the cultures inherent in their vocabulary and grammar, are woven as tightly together as the many stories which make up the novel.

Hummingbird and The Mango’s Kiss may share a narrative style, but the particular expertise of their respective authors makes these books very different reading experiences. Hummingbird is an extremely detailed, many-coloured quilt, deftly stitching together the stories which it contains; The Mango’s Kiss is one endless length of cloth, its ever-changing pattern a testament to the skill of the weaver rather than the tailor.

 

Louise O’Brien is a Wellington reviewer.

 

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Posted in Fiction, Literature and Review
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