Victoria University Press, $29.95,
In Mutes and Earthquakes Bill Manhire gives his creative writing pupils a couple of pieces of advice: 1) write what you know, and 2) write what you don’t know.
If, he continues, you set a novel in an Icelandic fish factory, you had better know something about Iceland and fish factories. So, a firm grounding in fact is essential, even by the most mercurially-minded dream-spinner.
School of Manhire graduate, Catherine Chidgey, practises that philosophy to a T in her third novel The Transformation which, incidentally, has nothing to do with Iceland or fish, offering up instead the world of late 19th century Florida, a French wig-maker in exile, and Cuban cigar-makers (also in exile). Now living in Dunedin, Chidgey was recently interviewed by the Otago Daily Times and confirmed her love of historical research and passion for fine detail. Each of her novels – including the earlier In a Fishbone Church and Golden Deeds – has taken nearly three years to research and write, and her thoroughness shows. Dipping generously into public and private literary funding, Chidgey has been allowed the luxury of overseas travel for research.
The owner of a fine natural head of hair herself, Chidgey was attracted to the idea of hair as a disguise, with its power to transform the wearer, and to the means by which those not similarly blessed compensate for nature’s parsimony by placing themselves in the hands of wig-makers. Enter Lucien Goulet, the peerless French wig-maker, who is himself disguised and in flight to the New World. While Goulet sells his transformations at the showy upper end of the fashion market, his feet are of necessity firmly set in the murky depths of a trade which garners its raw materials from some fairly unsavoury places, involving furtive snippings from the living and the dead, retrieval from rubbish bins by night, and, in extremis, from a spot of exhumation. A jovial and well-balanced member of
society, Lucien Goulet is not.
So how does The Transformation stand as a recreation of the past? It falls into the category of historical novel with all the dangers that implies for the writer of having to strike a nice balance between successfully creating a forgotten world (but not overdoing it) and setting characters, theme, and action alive within that world (but not allowing them to be overshadowed by it). And the writer soon finds herself having to revisit that old battle-site, realism. For someone writing an historical novel, recreating the past requires varying amounts of evocative detail to provide authenticity, yet the smart, (post)modern reader, seeing realism as a faded jade, soon tires of lashings of detail and wants something which finds its strengths elsewhere in character, plot, or fine writing. Unfortunately The Transformation does not tread a sophisticated tightrope here; Chidgey has placed too much importance on her research and on providing detail for authenticity, sacrificing the other aspects of the novelist’s craft. Going too far down the path of finding her truths in the historical detail, she has become bogged down, serving up instead a strangely old-fashioned novel. Everything is described, modified, qualified, as the writer moves by a process of accretion to build up her world, as in this picture of an itinerant knife-sharpener:
His cart was painted with curly flowers and attached to one side was an umbrella that he raised in wet weather. He clenched a cigar between his teeth, and the sweet smoke rose as his wheel spun, and the blades made a sound like the sea in a shell. With his long black coat and his black cap and his umbrella, he reminded Marion of a figure on a German weather house: the little man who comes outside to warn of rain.
It often seems that Chidgey has done too much research and she is not prepared to waste a scrap of it. In her Otago Daily Times interview, she describes the joy of finding useful material to enliven the novel: in Florida, she found a luxury resort still standing, built by the railway magnate, Henry B Plant, and still furnished as he intended it to be: “So when you can actually find real things you can get your hands on, it makes the book come much more alive.” The hotel and Henry B Plant are gathered into the novel as accurately as possible (confirmed in an acknowledgement at the back of the novel). Similarly with the craft of wig-making, no detail is spared, becoming an intrusion which impedes character development and plot.
What of character and plot? As well as the chillingly dark Lucien, there is Marion, a widow who requires a transformation. Her husband, Jack, a citrus planter and a potentially interesting character, is killed off aged 27 on page 27, leaving his wife to drift. Perhaps a new wig will give her direction? Meeting her sets Lucien off down darker paths, but Chidgey fails to make the most of this catalyst. We do not understand the wig-maker – his lurid past is only hinted at and too late in the novel – and Marion is too pallid for the reader to care what becomes of her. There is a young boy from Cuba who works by day in a cigar factory, and by night as a hair-procurer for Lucien. His interaction with both Lucien and Marion is sketchy. Nothing much happens; slowly a wig is being fashioned. Chidgey’s problem is that once she has painstakingly recreated her locale, she seems to have run out of energy to set interesting and believable characters within it, or to provide action with which to keep the thing bubbling along.
Chidgey’s only recourse, which she seems to have realised late in the piece, is to make Lucien’s behaviour increasingly psychotic. In the final chapter, the carrot of a dénouement is held out to the reader, but a potential epiphany dissipates into a melting moment, and the reader is not entirely sure what has happened, or what future direction is implied. Most will not care by then.
So The Transformation is a novel which cannot bear the weight of its fine detail, and offers little relief by way of interesting characters or action. Similarly there are no stylistic delights to keep the reader on side; Chidgey’s style is competent but not memorable. One comes back to Manhire’s dictum. How wise is it to stimulate writers to write beyond the bounds of the known, if it means that research becomes the thing, and if it means tying oneself down to years of research? Better to leave Iceland and the fish factories unexplored than become seduced by the search for authenticity in fine detail.
Heather Murray is a Dunedin reviewer.