Satiric barbs and Danish cross-stitch, Margot Schwass

Change of heart
Barbara Anderson
Victoria University Press, $27.95,
ISBN 0864734662

yet another ghastly christmas
Shonagh Koea
Vintage, $26.95,
ISBN 186941568X

These new novels by Barbara Anderson and Shonagh Koea sit comfortably together, like well-chosen china teacups. Their worlds have much in common. Charming colonial cottages in the old-money neighbourhoods of Wellington and Auckland. Climbing roses. Good wine. Comfortable upholstery.

The writers share certain ways of seeing too. The domestic world of things and surfaces – a frivolous sunhat, a melting moment, a bowl of peaches -– is carefully observed and deliciously recorded. For Anderson and Koea – as for a long line of fiction writers running from Jane Austen through Katherine Mansfield to Carol Shields – domestic details matter not for their own sake but because they reveal so much about the people who live among them.

And those people are cut from very similar cloth. You could well imagine the two novels’ central characters rubbing shoulders at night classes at the local high school, perhaps, or at the library book sale: Barbara Anderson’s aging dentist Oliver Perkins, (a “pompous old pot”, in the judgment of his son) and Shonagh Koea’s widow, Evelyn Jarrold, gamely preparing for another ghastly Christmas under siege from her even ghastlier “friends”. Both are respectable, unostentatiously well-heeled, yet somehow slightly on the margins of their family circles or communities. Outwardly, both are deeply conventional (despite Evelyn’s penchant for girlish hair ribbons), yet are capable of considerable surprises.

Another quality the novels share is a superbly polished narrative voice that, again, has echoes of Jane Austen and Katherine Mansfield. Droll and affectionate, it nonetheless bristles with satiric barbs -– usually gentle, but sometimes positively lacerating. In Koea’s work especially, there’s a whole crew of secondary characters who exist chiefly for the purpose of having their vanities, self-delusions and narrow-mindedness exposed through their own appalling utterances. If the failings and fears laid bare are often predictable, their exposure is still horribly, cringe-makingly funny.

Both authors have deadly antennae when it comes to capturing the rhythms and nuances of speech – an attentiveness their central characters share. Oliver, incarcerated temporarily in hospital, bristles at the constant invitations to “pop in” for this or that x-ray or procedure. He concludes grimly that “Pop was the one-stop verb for carers.” His wife tells him she loves him but not, he notes, with passion: more “an expression of friendship towards a slightly dotty aunt”. Evelyn’s worst social crime, in the view of her friends the Clarks, is her tendency to say “Oh” far too often – a vague, yet embarrassingly pregnant, conversation-stopper. There’s a sustained alertness to the precise meanings and subtle inferences of words and how different people use them.

After Anderson’s slightly disappointing 2001 novel, The Swing Around, I found Change of Heart more satisfying. The well-intentioned, sometimes curmudgeonly and forever bemused Oliver Perkins is a superb creation. More precisely, he is superbly delivered to us, viewed from within and without. One moment, Oliver is confiding to his journal his mixed feelings towards his father (an expatriate English vicar turned lawyer, prone to dispensing advice larded with erudite quotations); then we see him in conversation with his own unhappy adult son, Copland, solving his problems by quoting poetry and making etymological digressions in exactly the same irritating manner.

The change of heart alluded to in the title is Oliver’s. The catalyst: a brief cardiac incident that leads him to discover he has, quite literally, “a lovely heart” – healthy, strong and disturbingly pristine. Has it been neglected, under-used, all these years? How, he thinks, should he use it better? Specifically, how can he love his wife of 40-odd years, Hester, better? To Oliver’s alarm, tackling these questions unleashes a succession of unwelcome disturbances. The normally accommodating Hester begins accusing him of all manner of sins: failures of communication, absence of emotion, and an all-round lack of people skills. Son Copland is similarly filled with rage at his paternal failings: “I try and tell you what it’s like, how I can’t go on … and all you do is check you’ve got the right phrase, the correct words. Forget the words!”

Bewildered, Oliver can only conclude that he is guilty as charged – not of failing to love, but of failing to show his love sufficiently to his nearest and dearest.

Funding Copland back to university and taking Hester on an overseas holiday seem ideal solutions. But things continue to go awry. Before long, Hester is off overseas – not with Oliver, but with her Spanish teacher José. Oliver’s home-life is rapidly overtaken by financial troubles, the demands of his gloomy son, the permanent arrival of his chirpy grand-daughter Poppy and a live-in housekeeper in the form of José’s sister Teresa. A change of heart proves to be a far messier business than Oliver anticipated.

Somewhere in the last third of the novel, I felt the machinery of the plot was beginning to overwhelm the story. There are blossoming love affairs, exotic dancers, pending financial disasters, a new school, the arrival of an unknown relative from Britain bringing life-changing news. To me, the story’s real centre lies with Oliver and Hester, with Oliver’s learning to love her better and more fully. Theirs is a compelling relationship, built on decades of habit and compromise, yet scored through by playfulness and vitality. But somehow in the latter stages of the novel, Oliver’s and Hester’s story gets pushed to the margins, crammed out by all the extraneous clutter – fun though it is.

Yet another ghastly christmas is less hectic than Change of Heart, but it too is about an older person rediscovering love. In the frenzied buildup to Christmas, Evelyn Jarrold is holed up in her cottage, desperate to avoid both the looming festivities and the obnoxious interventions of her friend-from-hell, Jennifer.

Much of the novel comprises telephone conversations: Jennifer is far too busy with beauticians and lunches to visit Evelyn, but is never averse to issuing advice and instructions by phone. And Evelyn – whose much-loved husband Frederick has been dead for some years and whose only subsequent romance ended dismally – is a prime target. Jennifer’s message is consistent: pull yourself together, smarten yourself up, stop living in the past: “’I’ve known you for years so I feel I can tell you that you’re sometimes a bore, and I mean that with all the affection in the world.’”

Inevitably, Jennifer and her circle try to “fix up” Evelyn with a succession of men, all awful, so that she is not on their consciences at Christmas. As various unappealing prospects present themselves, Evelyn craves solitude and the comfort of memories of Christmas past. Finally, though, she does find love in unexpected quarters and is able to thumb her nose at Jennifer et al in a most satisfactory conclusion.

Evelyn is a not-unfamiliar Koea creation: an ardent, dreamy but nonetheless clear-eyed widow beset by predatory friends and potential lovers. Through Evelyn, Koea explores with compassion the shadowy border between solitude and loneliness: there are moments where the writing is almost unbearably plangent, charged with the pain of loss.

But what really carries the novel is Evelyn’s acerbic commentary on her circle of “friends” – the odious former headmaster Alan with “another three to look at” after their first arranged meeting, Jennifer clattering over the parquet floor in her Bruno Magli mules. These secondary characters are sharply drawn, their shrill voices utterly convincing. But, ultimately, this cast of comic types is simply too uniformly awful, too thin, to last the distance. Towards the end, the long-suffering Evelyn’s trek towards Christmas becomes a little tiresome, with only the question of whether she will spend the day alone (and why Jennifer is so long in the bathroom) to sustain the reader’s interest. While Change of Heart has perhaps too much plot, yet another ghastly christmas could do with a bit more.

Neither novel is their author’s best, but they show them both in full command of the things they do best. The dialogue is near audible in its conviction. Clothing, food, household objects – judiciously chosen, sparingly described – are used as a kind of visual shorthand that speaks volumes about characters and relationships. And if things seem in danger of getting a little too decorative and domestic (you can, after all, have too much Danish cross-stitch and dahlias) both Koea and Anderson are supremely capable of putting the boot in.

And of course the superbly economical image that summons up a whole truckload of truths is a hallmark of both. “My father,” recalls Oliver Perkins, “stood about my childhood like a large and distant tree.” It’s the “stood about” that does it, a little verbal phrase carrying with it a lifetime of benign paternal neglect. Evelyn Jarrold’s best friend Andrea, a socialist art-collecting academic, wears “pure cotton pyjamas in mud colours” and at other times “large bespoke footwear”. You really don’t need to know about her Volkswagen, her contempt for neo-liberalism and middle-class fascism, nor her rimless spectacles, to get the picture.

And that points to what is perhaps the greatest strength the two writers share: they know when to stop, when enough is –– economically, exquisitely, absolutely – quite enough.

 

Margot Schwass is a Wellington writer, editor and reviewer. She co-authored New Zealand Abroad: the story of VSA in Africa, Asia and the Pacific which was a category finalist in last year’s Montana Book Awards.

 

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