Transit of Venus
Love in Shades of Grey
Like Small Bones
Hazard Press, $24.99,
A first novel does not just appear. It is usually the result of persistence in the face of rejection and almost always represents years of perfecting the craft of writing. The day a fiction writer holds their first novel is a momentous one. The years of hope and pain are reduced to this one glorious moment. So the saddest thing about reviewing these three first novels is that one of the authors missed out on that moment of triumph.
Before Rowan Metcalfe died in 2003, she was a successful short story writer and had spent many years researching and writing her first novel. The talent and tenacity show in Transit of Venus. Although the title has been used before, notably by Shirley Hazzard, it is apt and the cover design is an effective and subtle play on Botticelli’s Birth of Venus. The author is a direct descendant of Fletcher Christian and his Tahitian “wife” Mauatua, and she described the book as a “meditation on my ancestors”. As such it is a family history, but it is much more than that. It is an interesting take on an old story and a most satisfying read. With Pitcairn Island in the news, this book does help one understand the potential for lawlessness on that isolated refuge chosen by Fletcher and his fellow mutineers.
The research is prodigious and has resulted in a credible reconstruction of life in 18th century Tahiti. The process by which tapa cloth is made is demonstrated, from the hypnotic beating of the tapa to production of the dye from mati figs. A wedding ritual is performed and the newly married couple consummate their union in public. Funeral rites are described, some in horrific detail, and time-honoured tales are perpetuated by the fatu upa upa, master of ceremonies. Traditional tattooing takes place accompanied by its attendant myths:
Let the bones of the sacred bird pierce me now, let the blood flow … Many are the regions of darkness. In the depths of the farthest cavern dwells the lizard, Te Mo’o. The keeper of sacred memory. He may show himself to those he chooses. A young woman alone in the searing valley of the tattooing pain … .
All this information flows out of the narrative naturally. It is disseminated piecemeal and within the context, so it does not read like regurgitated research. Metcalfe captures the Tahitians’ sense of wonder and bewilderment at the white man and his culture. Books are “tattooed leaves”; tents are “cloth houses”; a violin is “a curious instrument” which “moaned a little – as if waking … its voice vibrated on the edge of sorrow… .” All is accomplished in the finest of writing.
The cast is large but as in a Russian novel there is a convenient dramatis personae. The glossary of Tahitian terms is also useful. Initially the mix of third- and first-person narrative for Mauatua is confusing, and the novel is slow in setting off, but once underway it is well-paced and a compelling read. Rowan Metcalfe’s death while still in her 40s is a tremendous loss to New Zealand literature.
Also compelling, but not as satisfying, is Glynne MacLean’s first adult novel, Love in Shades of Grey. (Roivan, a young adult novel was published in 2003.) In this novel we find the improbably named Mario St Claire (aka Claire) comatose and pregnant in a hospital bed in Edinburgh. Although there are few signs of life her mind still functions and her reminiscences are interwoven with the day-to-day life of the hospital. The day she is given three years to live, she receives a commission to write an opera. She figures she just has time to complete the work and see it produced, but after the sudden death of her husband has to find some means of financial support. She goes to Melbourne and gets a job in a brothel where she meets the enigmatic businessman Reinhard Lynyard who will become the father of her child.
Deus ex machina might have served Greek dramatists well, but it has no place in the modern novel. Yet MacLean has Charles, Lynyard’s best friend in Sydney, turning up in Edinburgh as a neurologist to help with Claire’s treatment. The husband’s untimely but useful death; the opera commission; the job as a prostitute in spite of the fact that her availability could not be guaranteed on any given day because of her disability; her pimp boss offering a lucrative job providing exclusive straight sex to one client once a fortnight; a fire at the Milan opera house where the opera’s première is to take place; Lynyard’s indictment for murder – all seem implausible and contrived. The plot does not arise out of the characters, it is imposed upon them. In fact, the plot reads rather like the libretto for an opera, which might succeed on the stage, but does not work as a novel.
Ernest Hemingway said: “A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.” There are several hollow places in Love in Shades of Grey. The composition of the opera is sketchily covered. It is not until the opera is complete that we learn the composer not only wrote the music but “wrote every note for every instrument, wrote the lyrics, the arias, the story, everything.” (Surely a real composer would refer to the “libretto”.) There are no precise, believable details about Claire’s terminal illness and its treatment. The only specific is the prognosis, and one wonders if any doctor would be prepared to pronounce such a lengthy one.
In spite of providing these moments of exasperation and disbelief the novel is confidently written and many passages are achingly lyrical. The most convincing sections are those set in the hospital where Claire evokes the deadly routine of her days and the frustration of not being able to communicate. The writing is at its most inspired here and it resonates in a way that the rest of the narrative does not. Even here, though, there is one alarming slip-up, like an inadvertent Irish joke. When Claire finally regains the use of one arm, Nurse Sarah says: “ ‘If you can hear us, tap your finger. Twice for yes and three times for no.’”
There are no such slip-ups in Ruth Pettis’ first novel. Pettis is not a newcomer as a wordsmith. She is a journalist, short story writer and poet, so it should be no surprise that Like Small Bones is remarkable; sure-footed and slow-moving, but never sluggish. The protagonists, Violet and Gerald, have never met, and the novel is in part about the build-up to their eventual meeting. It is, in effect, an historical novel but the handling is far from traditional as the narrative weaves effortlessly through time and place. At the same time it maintains coherence, and the author is kind enough to signpost the odd date to help us keep on track.
Both Violet and Gerald are utterly believable characters. There are many similarities. Violet is loved by her father, but rejected by her mother; Gerald’s adoptive father beats him, but he is secure in his mother’s love. Violet’s hesitancy in the face of life without her mother’s indifferent domination is endearing. Gerald “knows that people think he’s odd, a bit of a recluse.” They are both prisoners of the rigidity of routine, leading lives redolent with missed opportunities. Violet faces her mirror each day with a sense of disbelief:
The years between her youth and the beginning of her old age had gathered momentum … And for all the outward changes that had taken place, on the inside she felt just the same. The ache was still there… .
There is a satisfying symmetry with book-end periods of 1999 and 1899, both years full of the promise of a new century. Yet Violet’s mother, Sarah, writes of her in her journal of July 1900: “I am hard on her. It’s for the best. I don’t want her growing up with too much hope.” However this is not a depressing story. It is about the resilience of the human spirit. There are glimpses of where hope began before it failed. And hope ultimately prevails.
Joan Rosier-Jones is a novelist and creative writing tutor.