Like a good ballad, Catharina van Bohemen

Heart of Coal 
Jenny Pattrick
Black Swan, $26.95,
ISBN 186941604X

Heart of Coal is the sequel to Jenny Pattrick’s highly Successful Denniston Rose – the story of the isolated inhabitants of the coal-mining town of Denniston on the West Coast. Back then, in the 1880s, the town could only be reached by a terrifying trip in a coal-wagon up an almost vertical incline or via a precipitous foot-track. Heart of Coal opens some years later at the turn of the new century with talk of a new road that “would open up Denniston to the world”. By the end of the novel, the road is built. Not only does it allow the world in, it also releases some of Denniston’s inhabitants from the tyranny of isolation and represents the end of a particular way of life.

Jenny Pattrick has written of her desire to show the effect of isolation on women and how our ancestors fought the same struggles of loss and love as we do. Her principal characters – Rose, her flamboyant mother Bella, and the indomitable Mary Scobie – all contend with sorrow: the death of children, abandonment of lover or parent, and sexual abuse. The resonance of the novel’s title is further underlined by the gold-rimmed coal heart displayed on the cover. The original was made by Pattrick herself, who is also a jeweller. She made it, she says, because coal fractures easily and because “I wanted [the heart] to look scarred.” The heart hangs above a photograph of Denniston: haphazard houses clinging to a hill, the road a muddy zigzag on which a few men are seen. I was reminded of Ruth Dallas’ poem “Photographs of Pioneer Women”:

You can see from their faces
Life was not funny,
The streets, when there were streets,
Tugging at axles,
The settlement ramshackle as a stack of cards.


But Heart of Coal, despite the characters’ dark secrets, is not morbid. This is a story suffused with music. The photo on the cover is followed by a ballad. Traditionally ballads were sung; they were about adventure, love and loss,  human tragedy all contained within the vigorous rhythm of their beat. Pattrick’s novel surges forward with similar zest.

The novel begins with everyone assembling for a concert to celebrate 20 years of the town’s existence. Our introduction to Brennan Scobie is of his fingers “dancing a tune on the case of his cornet”. An ironic choice, the cornet. On the night of the concert, Michael Hanratty (“legs admired for their mastery of polka and waltz”) publicly proposes to Rose. When she fails to appear, Brennan, Michael’s secret love, ascends the stage, takes the ring box and plays “The Rose of Tralee” on his cornet.

Brass bands were part of colonial life. The cornet player was an important member of the band, his instrument carried the tune. In military bands the cornet plays “The Last Post” at burials, and Brennan’s performance suggests not only that his love for Rose will prevail; it foreshadows Michael’s death, hinted at in the opening paragraph of the novel. Brennan continues to woo Rose with music after her marriage to Michael has ended, and when she agrees to marry him – the night she accepts the coal heart he made for her – they “jig and twirl, round and round and into the house.” Significant events are always serenaded by music: Bella’s coffin leaves Denniston to the tune of a jig (“a spicy number from one of Bella’s old saloon days”), and Con the Brake who surprises Brennan in Westport softens the surprise with his accordion and recognises his grandson, little Conrad, by his pure singing voice.

The narrator’s voice is not unlike a conductor’s baton. It always controls the story, it gestures, introduces, insinuates and dismisses much as a conductor shapes the sections in an orchestra, and the opening chapter is an energetic overture in which the main themes are introduced. The novel closes 67 years later to ringing bells, “the long keening sigh of escaping steam”, and with Rose, now very old, pointing to her coal heart.

The heart symbolises not only the coal which gave the settlement its existence; it refers also to the darkness in Rose’s life. Although she has become a flame-haired, quick-witted woman, her blighted childhood continues to affect her behaviour. She still steals; there are at least two occasions in the story when she nearly dies – she almost wills it. And when she is forced to leave Denniston, she develops such depression, she abandons Brennan and her children. Abuse has left her sexually passive. Her short-lived marriage to Michael Hanratty, golden and pretty like herself, is sexually unfulfilled, and Brennan, her second husband, is aware how she “shrinks” at his touch, until she has time to “translate” the experience. Janet Scobie, present at the birth of Rose’s first child, sees “the opening laced and criss-crossed with old scars, ugly and white, some of them already splitting.”

This is a noisy novel. Apart from the music, it resounds to the hiss of steam, the crank and rattle of coal trucks, the river’s roar, the clink of glasses and the gallop of horses’ hooves across the plateau – all elements which make up the colour and jostle of early West Coast settlement. Everything Pattrick describes, she does with exuberance and humour – horses’ names are good fun – and an awareness of cinematic possibility. The mystery of Brennan’s and Michael’s relationship seen from horseback by tiny Wee Willie Scobie “looks like a scene from a lantern slide-show”, and towards the end of the story when Rose and Brennan are reunited, Henry the schoolmaster observes them from the plateau: “The whole scene is gilded – family, food and bare timbers – a deeper and deeper rose gold as the sun slowly drowns … The couple become clean-edged silhouettes high above the distant sea … .”

Pattrick, the jeweller-writer, has fashioned her tale of darkness with the delicacy and strength of the gold links which support her heart of coal. This is not a novel of penetrating psychological illumination. The characters are not profound, their struggles acknowledged but not dissected. They plod, dance or gallop through the story, leaving this reader with the same pleasure felt after reading a good ballad.


Catharina van Bohemen is an Auckland reviewer.


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