What’s on the menu, Shelagh Duckham Cox

Songs from the Violet Café
Fiona Kidman
Random House, $26.95,
ISBN 1869414055

In his 1984 essay “Reflections on Exile”, Edward Said remarks:

Most people are principally aware of one culture, one setting, one home; exiles are aware of at least two, and this plurality of vision gives rise to an awareness of simultaneous dimensions, an awareness that to borrow a phrase from music is contrapuntal.

 

Rootedness in a small town in the central North Island is the principal melody in Fiona Kidman’s new novel. But there’s the counterpoint of exile too. Chinese immigrants and a diaspora Jew get the story going. And a French restaurant on the lake-front is its main setting. Finally the narrative moves to Cambodia at the time of Pol Pot where some of the patrons and staff of the Violet Café find out what it is to be profoundly elsewhere and Cambodians suffer the internal exile of terror and despair.

Most of the action takes place in a town like Rotorua in 1963 and 1964. Jessie Sandle is the only incomer at this point; she’s escaping from Wellington and her mother. Many other characters swirl around her, populate the town and come and go in Violet Trench’s café – so many that I got confused trying to keep up with them. Anyone who lived in a small town in the 1960s will recognise the types and what happens on the sly. An ageing slut seduces her daughter’s boyfriend and every other man in sight. Another daughter’s relentless domesticity disappoints her bookshop-owning mother. A third daughter eludes her womanising father and sad mother by being bright enough to get away and educate herself.

The Holy Rollers who held such sway in small-town New Zealand then are pithily evoked:

When Belle’s fiancé, Wallace, had found God it was as if a great white light had been turned on. The light just kept burning and burning with an intensity that made him feel as if he glowed when he walked down the street. Perhaps he felt this way because he was an electrician, used to switching light on and off, understanding and yet not understanding the amazing current that illuminated the world.

 

Wallace goes to the house of a preacher who says his daughter Belle will make a good wife for someone. When his wife protests that the girl’s too young to make a promise, the preacher says, “I think you should go to your room, wife.” From here it seems natural to Wallace first of all to break and enter Belle, as he puts it, and later to chastise her physically. Detail is what convinces in this chapter, and throughout the novel Fiona Kidman turns her skilled hand to vivid and precise touches. Violet Trench’s butcher has “shavings of bone and fat speckled along the hairs on his thick forearms”. And Jessie Sandle, in 1980 a war correspondent based in Phnom Penh, finds herself plunged into “a wilderness of inscrutable shifting morality” where the humidity is “as thick as linen” and “a fat lazy rain” falls.

But detail tends to prevail over the whole so that powerful perceptions hang loose. There’s a lot of information about the truffles Violet serves, but little sense of the France she’s lived in and is trying to recreate. The town revolves around her café but the novel revolves around nothing in particular so that the narrative teems and progresses rather than moves forward. President Kennedy is shot, and characters wake up to “news of the stupendous event”, but there’s no felt sense in what follows that “nothing they knew would ever be the same” because there’s no felt sense that anything that happens in the novel could give rise to anything so definite.

A boat capsises in a storm on the lake and three people are thrown into the water, including John, who’s telling the tale. In a flash he sees a man still on board,  imprisoned in the space leading to the galley, turn from being inexplicably full of joy into a trapped animal desperate to live after all fails. He screams at another to hold onto the boat, but then the hand he’s holding goes limp, and the man sinks like a stone beneath him. So far, so tense. But the tension breaks spectacularly as John bobs in the water beside a girl in the moments before she disappears beneath the surface – bobs and idly muses:

She was all skin and bone, he thought, skinny inside and out. But she deserved better than what she’s been handed, a jerk like her father. Her brothers said Lou wasn’t a jerk, he was on okay man who’d been unlucky in his life, but John wasn’t so sure.

 

Precariousness of tone dogs the book in underwater ways; here it threatens to torpedo it altogether. When Fiona Kidman swoops authorially over the considerable mass of her material, one admires her deftness and air of command. But at other times she gets swallowed by the situations and settings she invents and is unwittingly co-opted into her characters’ limited visions of their lives.

Wynford Vaughan Thomas, the BBC broadcaster and wit, visited New Zealand at roughly this time and called it the super-suburbia of the Southern Seas: “Your shops, your pubs, your minds all close at six.” Fiona Kidman rejects the fare he was condemned to – “Ice-cream on mutton, swilled around in tea!” Indeed the quality of her food writing and evocations of the cuisine of the Violet café are among the highlights of the book. Edward Said’s “simultaneous dimensions” are here by implication – an atmosphere of Périgord truffles at the lakeside while locals hang around the milkbar down the road – but there’s a curious lack of ironic distance. So much more could be made of the contrast between the Frenchness of the café with its blend of the hick, Coro-style dramas, pretensions, high standards, good cooking and, above all, otherness and the world it inhabits. But the clichés about New Zealand (its geographical isolation, the way it looks inward rather than outward, its reluctance to compare itself objectively with other countries) underlie everything else, possibly without the conscious consent of the author.

Kidman’s novel is about a small town that, in Curnow’s phrase, is very much a place of settlers with “never a soul at home”. But it’s not till the action moves to Phnom Penh that there’s any sense of what Georg Lukács (invoked by Said) called “transcendental homelessness”. Here Kidman can write an exile’s fiction because she’s far away enough from the familiar to do so, and the brief Cambodian passages are both lyrical and compelling.

It doesn’t matter where Janet Frame, Maurice Gee, Fiona Farrell, and Owen Marshall set their novels or what they write about because their art transforms their topic. But for other writers there are pitfalls in telling stories of a traditional kind – for instance, of fundamentalist families in the back-blocks with cruel fathers and downtrodden mothers. There are also inbuilt limits in choosing a small- town setting. New Zealand is a country with a short colonial history and a limited range of available responses to living in a super-suburbia in the South Seas; even Fiona Farrell succumbs at one point to a sense of suffocating sameness in The Hopeful Traveller. Writers are beginning to move elsewhere imaginatively: Elizabeth Knox to a French vineyard, Charlotte Randall to Bedlam. For those who choose to stay, as it were, there’s a challenge to inventiveness and, despite the quality of some of Songs of the Violet Café, Fiona Kidman fails to meet it.

 

Shelagh Duckham Cox is a writer and sociologist who lives in Wellington.

 

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