Black Swan, $26.95,
Death of a Conscience
Nicky Pellegrino’s Delicious is a debut novel that draws in her own background (Italian ancestry, growing up in England) for local colour. Her career in journalism is also evident in the ironic eye she casts over PR spin – when her main character, Chiara, finds a new angle on compiling a recipe book, she is launched with the full Nigella “domestic goddess” Lawson treatment.
Delicious describes itself seductively as “a novel about longing, loving, and eating”. The book begins with two sisters, apparently destined for traditional domesticity in a small Italian township. But Maria Domenica raises her daughter Chiara beside the Mersey. Chiara’s trendy career then takes her to London. When her career falters, she decides to find out why her mother never spoke of her Italian past. What she discovers in San Giulio leads her to a kind of homecoming in Martinborough, New Zealand.
Pellegrino offers readers a smorgasbord of lovingly described gustatory pleasures, travelogue, gentle satire, romance, and a happy but not too fluffy ending. Delicious tries very hard to be delicious, like the perfect lemony gelato that melts tartly but sweetly on the tongue.
I do not have space to debate the usual put-downs of “women’s” novels, but will borrow one justification for delicious books from Louise Erdrich’s latest novel, The Master Butcher’s Singing Club. Erdrich writes a “big” novel that harrows the heart and makes demands of the reader’s imagination but looks kindly on those of us who enjoy “safely romantic” novels because we sometimes need to be confident that we “will not be left for days with heartache”.
Death of a Conscience is described on the cover as the work of an “experienced” novelist. At the most obvious level, “experienced” means that Heather Marshall has published some nine earlier titles, several of these for a young adult audience. Sadly, “experienced” in this instance does not quite equate to accomplished. The blurb describes Death of a Conscience as variously “haunting” and a “dark, psychological drama”. But the book’s narrator (20-something Robyn Powell) seems to suffer from sinusitis of the psyche. She speaks in a clogged, unemotional drone that does not deliver a jolt of conventionally suspenseful stuff to the reader.
If Marshall wishes to shock us with the blunted consciousness of disaffected and damaged young people, who do not know how to feel, and who may, in due course, wreak havoc on their children too, then the novel may be said to succeed. Here is Robyn instructing herself on how to react to the death of social misfit Leah who, somewhat unbelievably, has been living rough in the laundry of Robyn’s squalid Wellington flat for the last four years: “Guilt had not yet hit home, but it would be painful as I deserved, when I accepted that poor, pitiful Leah was dead by her own choice … Leah had feelings I told myself; she’d been as sensitive as the rest of us.” Not much later, Robyn says without a flicker of irony, self-recognition, or sensitivity, “I didn’t feel sorry because Leah’s life was over.”
We cannot easily see past the lumpen account that Robyn gives us of other people. When these characters are close to stereotypical, this is not necessarily a problem. Her parents’ generation are mainly sexual predators or indiscriminate breeders with progeny by multiple partners. Her contemporaries are either put upon (her best friend Celia) or put everyone else down. Hal, with whom Robyn forms a slowly deepening relationship, is initially both sneered at and sneeringly cynical himself. But when Marshall wishes to deepen our understanding of another character, such as Hal, she is too reliant on the blunt device of having that character embark on an uninterrupted (and therefore not very convincing) monologue to supplement Robyn’s viewpoint.
Setting is similarly obscured by the narrator’s obliviousness to it, and is a curious mix of fictionalised and localised. Robyn is on the run from a youthful indiscretion and avid gossip-mongers in the lifestyle-block “paradise” where she grew up – the “beautiful Canterdale Valley” somewhere north of the capital. Her work, flat, and life are in contemporary Wellington, but we get only a few cursory, not telling, details about either setting.
Some moments of tenderness or horror do rise above the quotidian muddiness of Robyn’s view. There is hope, maybe, that her conscience, or consciousness, may do more than flicker fitfully.
Oystercatcher (Greg Billington’s second novel) is set in small-town New Zealand but it presents itself as a big social novel. To take on the land issues of the tangata whenua and race relations in New Zealand is daring enough. As well as these challenging themes, Billington tackles community insularity, particularly hysteria over paedophilia.
American Tom Mahler comes to Mokau, a coastal settlement north of New Plymouth, to find himself after the death of his son. And setting is my first stumble with this book. If you read aloud the bit about driving north through Urenui to any Taranaki lover, they fall about laughing. (No insult intended, Urenui!) Leave aside that the viewpoint in this scene-setting exercise is that of a naive American visitor – the local reality simply does not support the following: “She passed through the village of Urenui and was reminded of swimming at Wailea. Remembered playing beach volleyball and eating baked crab in the warm Hawaiian evening.” The state highway goes nowhere near the beach; the township is a pleasant but unremarkable small town; and the vista is of a papa-laden, grey river. My extended farming whanau disputes the bit about driving through a dairy herd on a state highway to the accompanying “symphony of flatulence such as I have never heard”. These days, they build cow tunnels under even quite minor roads, and cows mostly belch their methane and are not especially noisy in the process.
Billington handles his big-themes-in-a-small-setting by introducing us to pretty much everybody you would expect to meet in a rural township. He also imports Tom Mahler’s estranged but fond wife, who flies in to rescue Tom. Billington makes restless filmic cuts among these many characters so that we see community dynamics and piece together a broad spectrum of attitudes and prejudices.
Some key characters remain resolutely in our peripheral vision, perhaps too much so. Sean Pagett, the damaged son of a violent father, is especially hard to “see”, but possibly this is Billington’s point. His father has rendered Sean literally mute, the community does not know how to handle him, and for Tom Mahler, Sean is initially a surrogate for his dead son Luke.
Billington’s characters are recognisable. Indeed, because both the foreigners and the locals enthusiastically label each other, recognition is built in. But Billington over-eggs the cake by delivering us stereotypes. As well as being a brutish father, Trevor Pagett is a crass landowner who, in setting fire to his coastal bush, ignites community tensions over the land. But Billington paints him totally noir; seems like he may have dealt to his wife and buried her out the back, for example. When a sniper shoots his cattle, he feeds the carcasses to his pigs, turning his farm into a stinking charnel house. The kuia Gertie Ngahere is sentimentally cosy with her cups of tea, chrysanthemum cuttings (“those old chrissies”), and homespun wisdom. The cops sound as if they escaped out of The Bill of a few years back: “And now I’m fetching the little bleeder a cuppa.”
And Tom Mahler? He is potentially the pivotal figure in the book. He offers an outsider’s perspective on what he encounters. And as the outsider in an insular community, he becomes the focus of assorted local prejudices. But the book begins with his apparent drowning. We have to “construct” Tom from his rather mannered constructions of himself in letters, and in a diary that Mary finds “fallen between the wall and the short floor boards”. And wait for it, that is only volume one. Someone, somewhere, has the second diary!
When it is finally delivered, the “moral” is (more or less) “keep talking”. By the last pages, even the mute Sean Pagett has said his first word.
Robin Corney is a Wellington editor.