Family gatherings, Isa Moynihan

Lily’s Cupola
Bronwyn Tate
University of Otago Press, $29.95,
ISBN 1877276596

Kelly Ana Morey
Penguin, $27.95,
ISBN 0143018922

Rosemary Wildblood
David Ling, $29.95,
ISBN 0998990901

The three-generation novel has always been popular with women writers. Besides Lily’s Cupola, Bloom and Joybird in New Zealand in 2003, there was Elizabeth Smithers’ The Sea Between Us, Barbara Anderson saying, “I think the three-generation thing is so fascinating” in an interview on National Radio, and Bronwyn Tate, also on National Radio, saying, “I love families and secrets.” Synchronicity, the current zeitgeist or just sheer coincidence?

The family saga is a genre ignored by literary critics and bought by millions. Ignored, says a British publisher, because they’re all the same. As a label, genre has its uses: readers know what to expect and where to find it in the library or on the bookshop shelves, but Lily’s Cupola, Bloom and Joybird differ so widely as to illustrate the folly of labelling creative work. The only elements they have in common are the three generations and discontinuous narratives with time-switching. In all three, hinted-at secrets maintain suspense, and plots are intricate, signposted with recurring motifs and images. Smoke and mirrors. Close attention must be paid.

Lily’s Cupola is Bronwyn Tate’s fourth novel, confident and accomplished, with authentic dialogue, engaging characters, and sparkling vignettes of contemporary life. The plot is intricately patterned like the quilts described by octogenarian Lily, the main character. Lily in New Zealand writes long letters to Iris in London. Her son Hugo, whom nobody loves, thrice married and now in thrall to a twenty-five-year-old “stick insect”, is the owner-chef of an upmarket restaurant. His son Nathaniel comes to stay with Lily, make a short film, and build her a cupola. In a gloomy council flat in a rundown apartment building in one of London’s less attractive districts, Flossie reminisces about her life and is counting down to a forthcoming event, unspecified. There is also a fat boy being bullied at school, his parents unnamed.

The account of a Kiwi Christmas Day and a cruelly funny luncheon party are vivid and precise. There are dramatic contrasts between Lily’s spacious life in New Zealand and the mouth-watering meals she cooks for her adult grandson, and Flossie’s tea and toast, bacon and cabbage in dismal London. In New Zealand Lily contemplates “swathes of diminishing hills stretching away to the sea” as she sits on her verandah quilting. In London Flossie lives on the fifth floor of a gloomy apartment block where the lift rarely works, there is a “stiff cold wind and dripping nose, the hole in the sole of her shoe, letting in water, the climb, laden with her purchases, up five flights.”

A recurring theme is the wide-reaching effects of war. Soldiers return hardened and horny, lashing out at bewildered children and making violent love to wives who remember them going off to war “tender and compliant” and returning “rigid, a fleshy outer casing to shield the world from the horrors within”. Men also change after marriage, the kindly Reggie becoming a controlling miser, Eddie being a popular figure in public, an abuser in private.

Bait dropped casually at chapter ends maintains suspense. But being kept in the dark for so long does grow irritating. You’ve become engaged with the characters and want to see some connection between them. Final revelations come in a Dickensian tumble of information overload and you feel you should re-read the novel in the light of this knowledge. Would it have mattered if we’d known the true identities earlier? Since the characters are so strong and engaging, the suspense caused by withholding information is perhaps an unnecessary device to maintain interest.

Kelly Ana Morey’s Bloom, her first novel, is even more intricately plotted and does not resolve all its mysteries. The improbably named Algebra Spry is the grandmother, Rose is her daughter, and Constant Spry is the granddaughter and main narrator. Her older sister is Hebe, and the cover blurb describes them as “the four murderous and conveniently forgetful Women Spry”. Forgetfulness is a recurring motif as are drugs and photography, black and white dogs, gardening, and fading scars. There is an interesting cross-tie between Hebe and Sam Usher in Chad Taylor’s Electric, both of whom have shards of glass oozing through the skin. Morey and Taylor also share a penchant for surreal names.

The ghost of Nanny Smack, “a Hau Hau witch”, appears occasionally to Constant, crocheting (and occasionally “crotcheting”, a typo which also appears in the cover blurb) the next day’s sky. The ghost of a dog also materialises (as did the original dog), and boxes of books arrive for Constant, always by sea, their origin impossible to decipher in the welter of labels. There are brilliantly sensuous evocations of a squalid commune and of a summer beach in the morning with men fishing from the rocks.

When attacked by her husband, Rose finds a “manifestation, disconnected and half-solid” in her hands and knocks him out with it. Hebe’s first husband dies in mysterious circumstances, never fully explained. In the italicised opening someone unspecified possibly kills someone else unspecified. Constant claims to have killed a man with her bare hands when she was 13. Of course Constant is “a filthy bloody liar” according to her sister when Constant passes on a secret newly imparted by Nanny Smack. This secret is not revealed to the reader.

The narration cuts between present and past, both recent and distant. Such cutting is no problem for today’s reader, accustomed to film’s discontinuous narrative, but there are times when reading Bloom is like a ride on a ghost train, where terrifying figures loom out of the darkness and disappear into it without context or connection, other than the darkness. Of course family secrets are often vague and mysterious, and Morey skilfully conveys the cries and whispers and hints that sometimes – but not always – coalesce into knowledge. But, since the reader expects a dropped hint to have a later significance, an unexplained mystery can be annoying rather than tantalising. Why does the photograph of Han (or is it Mao Zedong or Ho Chi Min?) disappear and reappear? What does Nanny Smack know about Hebe’s second husband and the (possible) father of her child? “We know all about Hugh,” snorts Nanny Smack. “Do tell,” says Constant, and the chapter ends.

Nevertheless Bloom is a stunning effort as a first novel and Morey is clearly a rising star on our literary firmament, her talent already recognised by the award of the Todd New Writers’ Bursary.

Rosemary Wildblood’s Joybird is also a first novel engaging with three generations, but more concerned with emigration to New Zealand from post-war Britain, and, in particular, with the after-effects of war on men. The plot is complex, the narrative straightforward and matter-of-fact. Perhaps it could do with more smoke and mirrors. It could certainly have done with more attentive editing to pick up the repetitions and slip-ups in grammar that writers – who see only what’s in their minds – are not always aware of.

Again we follow three apparently unrelated stories. In New Zealand in the present we have an upmarket couple, middle-aged Mel and husband Forbes, and young widow Lisa and her daughter Molly. The narrative alternates between the New Zealand present and the grim realities of post-war Britain where Emily is a child and there are outside toilets, squalid bomb shelters, bikes bought on time payment, and, finally, the Coronation. In spite of hardships Emily has a joybird inside. She tells her father about it: “It’s like something fluttering in my chest, trying to get out.” Her beloved father advises her to let it fly out so that everyone can share the happiness.

In New Zealand Lisa feels threatened by her violent ex-boyfriend Dean, and Mel’s husband is having an affair with his secretary. When he dies suddenly Mel gets a job and her shy neighbour Royce mows the lawn for her. In spite of warnings Mel becomes interested in Rob, “reportedly one of the highest paid reporters on television.”  They have sex. He is unfaithful – as her husband was. Lisa meets Caradoc, a veterinarian, who shows interest. They have sex. In Britain Emily’s mother persuades her husband to emigrate to New Zealand where Emily gets a job and has an unfortunate experience involving sex.

Thirty pages from the end the revelations begin and the novel ends with a touching reunion. Lisa has married the gallant Caradoc and Mel has learnt that “being needy attracts the wrong type” and that we shouldn’t try to conform to the expectations of others but do as our hearts tell us.

Joybird portrays the change in attitudes from the fearful 1950s, when babies born out of wedlock were “illegitimate” and their birth a shameful secret, to the present when the pill, feminism and the sexual revolution have finally overthrown the old conventions – at least in the western world.


Isa Moynihan is a writer and fiction editor of Takahe magazine.


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