Reading teeth, Jane Hurley

Music from a Distant Room
Stephanie Johnson
Vintage, $26.95,
ISBN 1869416171

Nola Lane is a dental nurse who loves her job. By day she peers carefully into small mouths, tamps down zinc and mercury into tiny jaws and snips cottonwool balls into makeshift dolls, with pen marks for eyes. From the outside, her clinic is a trim Wendy house; on the inside, it’s all chrome and silver and red, smelling so clean “your nostrils squeaked”. The fact that the children are afraid of her “chips” her heart a little but not too much. At night, Nola goes home to her vaguely theatrical palm-reading mother who breaks open the Corbans sherry for them both.

In that opening chapter of Music from a Distant Room,  Stephanie Johnson brings it all back: that primary school world of crisp, white, red-cardied nurses and Bertie Germ posters. It’s a perfect evocation, and I liked it a lot. Who else has had the wit to describe such an essential experience of Kiwi childhood, which was also a gesture of faith in our egalitarian future? In this country, even the children of the poor would have strong white teeth, as Nola reminds herself some 40 years later. Even children like Brett Tyler, a tow-headed, 10-year-old who arrives with appalling cavities and a hell of a black eye, given him, so he tells Nola, by his mother’s boyfriend. Luckily, Brett’s father is working a digger on the new subdivision, next hill over, so Nola walks the young boy there to let his dad know what’s happened. Or maybe it’s not so lucky, after all. Brett’s father is older, rough and ready, attractive and all of a sudden it’s more than Brett’s molars which are erupting. It’s the basics – violence, lust, love and death – pushing through the smooth membrane of Nola’s life and rubbing it raw.

Sadly, the only thing I really liked about Stephanie Johnson’s new novel were these first few pages. The rest of it is never less than well written but somehow just … disappointing. The life of the young and idealistic Nola is only one strain of Music. Its counterpoint is the narration of an older and more sombre Nola, who has just buried her boy, Carl. Carl – blind, a pianist – has died in uncertain circumstances and only his lover Tamara – a jazz singer on her way back to Chicago, also blind – can tell Nola what really happened. So Nola proposes a bargain to the traumatised woman: “I’ll give you his beginning, and then you can tell me his ending. In exchange.”

Except that Nola breaks her promise – to Tamara and the reader. She doesn’t tell us about Carl at all; there’s barely a Carl to tell us about. We hear of his conception, and about an episode later on in his life, onboard ship, when Carl discovers girls for the first time but apart from that – nothing. Brett is far more alive to us as a small boy than Carl ever was. In fact, Carl’s not just blind: he’s invisible. There’s a gaping absence at the centre of the novel – so much so that the emotional punch which should come from Carl’s death has to be provided by another tragedy entirely, involving a completely different character, one we actually feel we do know. I can’t help feeling this would have been a much better book if Johnson had left Carl where he lay and concentrated on the characters she really does care about.

But, then, most of the characters in Music from a Distant Room are at the mercy of the plot, which feels like it’s been superimposed from above, rather than stemming naturally from the kinds of people these characters are and the decisions they make. (Incidentally, Carl is not the only character who doesn’t feel real – Tamara’s American jazz-inflected dialogue is particularly unconvincing.) This mechanical quality to the plot was also a flaw in The Shag Incident, though to a much lesser degree, since that is a much better novel. In The Shag Incident, though the plot is like a Rubik’s cube of interconnectedness, perfectly solved at the end (does every loose end have to be tied up and snipped off?), still the characters have a lot more fight in them and a much better shot at determining their own fates.

Both of these novels are a far cry from Johnson’s second novel, The Heart’s Wild Surf, which I read while overseas and loved, partly because it brought Pacifica back to me but partly because it was such a gorgeously enjoyable flow of text. In fact, Surf  seemed to consist of a confused flurry of characters and no discernible plot at all; I still can’t remember exactly what happened in it, only the pleasure of immersion.

Nonetheless, there are pleasures in Music from a Distant Room too. I don’t think Johnson could write badly if she tried. At times, however, her prose has an odd inexactitude, she fudges the detail. For example, again in those first few pages, is Brett playing on the dental chair in Nola’s clinic or on her swivelly stool; is his father driving the roller or the grader? It sounds like a ridiculous quibble but it’s like a tangle in the text; I want to see  what’s happening and I can’t. And we can see Nola turning into her mother through the years; the two of them so different in the beginning: the generous, blowsy woman with her palm-reading; the pert school-girlish nurse. And yet already Nola is “reading” teeth the way Peg, her mother, reads hands: the “happiest and most serene” children at school, she informs Peg, come from “mothers with protruding eyeteeth”. True, you could call that a scientific observation but, as Nola herself notes, she’s not above copying down old wives’ tales as fact either: “People with a wide gap between their central incisors are destined to great wealth.” All the qualities that characterise Nola as a 60-year-old are already germinating in the younger woman; her science is only skin deep.

But perhaps Nola can’t be blamed for that. Science, after all, fails her. Her trick of seeing things in cross-section in the early days – “the red, muscular fibres of gluteus maximus” of her lover’s buttocks, “the enamel, dentine and pulp heart of a tooth, the loll of a liver in a gut” – eventually confronts her with the cross-section of her own son’s blindness: “the retina red as a matinee curtain, the optic nerve in jagged yellow running away”. And so she swaps her cool, hygienic white clothing for saturated colours and hennaed hair, since Carl could see bright colours when he was little, “and I had worn them for him”.

Eventually, she gives away teeth altogether as – like her mother – she takes a job as a palm-reader on a cruise ship, entertaining the passengers. Even so, she doesn’t change that much. The young woman who dreams of fixing battered children (“her dream self … calm, deft, sanguine as she mended, set, bandaged and plastered”) and saving Brett’s father from himself becomes a fortune-teller who enjoys reassuring anxious passengers that their life-line is long and distinct – “even if it was not, particularly”. Once a girl with a saviour complex, always a girl with a saviour complex. Nola, at least, is a character worth writing about, even if her son was not.


Jane Hurley is a freelance scriptwriter, editor and reviewer.


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