Ghosts and drummers, Bronwyn Tate

Grace is Gone
Kelly Ana Morey
Penguin, $28.00,
ISBN 0143019406

Rhythm
Rebekah Palmer
Penguin, $28.00,
ISBN 0143019058

In 2004 Penguin published second books by two of New Zealand’s emerging novelists. Kelly Ana Morey was recipient of the Todd New Writers’ Bursary for 2003, and her first novel Bloom won the Montana Best First Book Award for that year. Grace is Gone is peopled with ghosts, animals and a whanau with 12 half-sisters at its centre. They share the same father, Billy Flower, and all have loosely linked botanical names. Cherry Sprite, the protagonist, arrives back in her fictitious home town of Meridian, after 17 years and the break-up of a relationship with her photographer-colleague and partner.

From here on the reader is introduced to a host of other characters, though I hesitate to call them that. This, to me, is the novel’s main weakness: too many names and nothing to distinguish between them. If your heart sinks at the thought of a main character called Cherry Sprite, you will no doubt have difficulty with ghosts doing crossword puzzles and uttering snippets of well-grounded advice. Grace is one of these ghosts, a life-long friend of Cherry’s.

Morey’s writing has a light, ethereal quality. The prologue is an endearing portrait of a small New Zealand town from decades ago. She has a knack for creating conversations between friends and acquaintances over tea or beer or barbecues or at beaches or on horseback.

But on the whole, I found Grace is Gone disappointing, mainly because the characters weren’t fleshed out enough for me to identify with. By the end of the novel I was still wondering about mother/daughter connections. Also, I was annoyed with these women. Were they so vulnerable to Billy’s charms that they were happy to be cast aside afterwards? Was there no bitterness in any of them? He is undeserving of their unspoken respect, and that of his daughters, who have received little in the way of support from him over the years. To start with, who is paying the bills? Billy is not stressed enough to be paying out child support for all those daughters still under the age of 18. They demand little, if anything, except for his initial sperm deposit.

This could have made a really good novel, full of conflict and fun. And Morey can do fun: Billy and Lilith trying to decide whether, in her I’m coming home phone call,  Cherry has mentioned divorce or a horse, for instance. Morey is a playful writer, her prose is quirky, up-beat, and mystical. In places it is evocative, creating long-lasting images and scenes: chasing waves on the beach, watching fireworks, riding horses through the forest. And some of the subtle frissons that pass between characters are quite sensual: “A faint shiver of loss flickered down Lilith’s spine” and “Lilith had spent most of her adult life catching moments with both hands and using them to calm her collection of storms and cyclones.” But overall I felt we needed fewer drugs and more cohesion. The writing verges on overdone, and I longed for more assiduous editing.

Rhythm by Rebekah Palmer is much faster moving and more grounded. There are three main characters, each is drawn clearly and tells part of the story. Ade falls in love – or lust – with Cara at their first meeting, and sets himself the immediate task of getting to know her better, despite the existence of her therapist husband Michael. The characters are very much city dwellers against a backdrop of financial security. They have well-paid jobs and live in comfortable flats.

Ade is a drummer in a percussion band – Pulsehence the novel’s title. He takes Cara along to practices, teaches her techniques and beats and styles. They attend films and musical performances. At first Michael’s and Ade’s own schedules prevent them from meeting: Michael has conferences and Ade accompanies Pulse on a tour. Palmer does a good job of evoking the misery this kind of low-budget, low-expectation tour can induce. The band members argue, and Ade feels he has moved on, that there are many places he’d rather be.

Michael becomes preoccupied with a new client, Vincent, who shares more information than Michael is used to on a professional basis. He finds himself giving more details than he intends to about his own personal life – his concerns about Cara and her relationship with Ade – and feels exposed. He is trying to be clinical about this, to allow her the freedom to move to the edge of what he thinks are reasonable, non-possessive boundaries, to give her the freedom to explore these without his interference. But practice and theory prove quite different, and his convictions are tested as Vincent moves uncomfortably close.

The character with the least depth is Cara. She is “lovely”, “beautiful” and “luminous”, but lacks qualities which distinguish her from anyone else in the book, despite Ade’s obsession with her. A bit more work on this might have given the book more impact. Palmer has worked as a freelance editor and journalist. Her style reflects this: it is spare and fast-moving. Her characters are believable and have their own problems and anxieties to deal with. They are imperfect, which is refreshing. I enjoyed the intellectual nature of this novel, and the subtlety and dryness of the humour.

 

Bronwyn Tate is a Palmerston North writer. 

 

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