Ambitious manoeuvres, John McCrystal

Let Me Sing You Gentle Songs
Linda Olsson
Penguin, $28.00,
ISBN 0143020285

Café Wars
Barbara Strathdee
Tara Publishing, $29.95,
ISBN 0476016061

About Turns
Maggie Rainey-Smith
Black Swan, $27.99,
ISBN 1869416791

Look around at any session of any literary festival, and you’ll note that the audience overwhelmingly comprises women of (as they say) “a certain age”. Survey the book clubs of the nation and you’re likely to find the same demographic heavily over-represented. Little wonder, then, that if the fascination with reading and writing among this group is reflected in book sales, it has also begun to register on the supply-side. After all, the art of successful publishing is knowing on which side of your bread the polyunsaturated butter substitute is spread. A new trend in New Zealand writing is a literature that caters to the tastes and predilections of 50-something women. These three novels are among the first wave. Should we be elated or alarmed? You decide.

“In the wrong hands delicate things are destroyed. In the wrong hands a book can be just paper. To be used to light a fire or clean the windows.” So says Astrid, one of the two principal characters in Auckland writer Linda Olsson’s first novel. As you would expect, looking at the double “s” in the author’s name, she is of Swedish extraction, and it is in Sweden that Let Me Sing You Gentle Songs is mostly set. Veronika has returned to Sweden after a sojourn in New Zealand, where she has lately loved and lost. She holes up in an old farmhouse to write her second novel, but becomes mildly curious about her neighbour, the elderly, reclusive Astrid. They have no contact until the day Veronika falls ill and Astrid, guessing something is amiss, checks on her. It is the beginning of a deepening friendship, the start of Astrid’s re-engagement with the world after a long, self-imposed exile and, for both women, the opportunity to bring deeply hidden secrets to light.

The pace is slow, with each in turn delving into her memory and presenting her new friend with a handful of memories, which – like the glowing strawberries in the book’s nicely judged cover illustration – are the fruit of a vine regenerating after a long, bitter season buried under snow. The mood is sombre. Veronika has lost the love of her life, and is seeking to discover whether it will be possible to be happy again. Astrid imagines she lost any chance of happiness decades ago. For her, friendship with Veronika is an unseasonal blessing, an Indian summer.

In the wrong hands, this could all be pretty turgid and depressing, and the book good only for fire lighting or window cleaning. But Olsson manages it all – pace, tone, character – with aplomb. The point of view is shared about between the first persons of both principal characters and the eye of god; each section is preceded by an epigrammatic segment of Swedish poetry – it is from one of these that the novel takes its name. And the story ends with a little postmodern flourish, as we learn that the book Veronika is writing is also called Let Me Sing You Gentle Songs.

It is not without its flaws: the characters tend to talk like characters in novels rather than people in the street – Veronika’s Kiwi surfie boyfriend James: “I lie awake after we have made love and watch you … I worry that you will quietly pull back the covers and slip away if I close my eyes. Slip away like a deer into the night.” And Veronika’s reaction to Astrid’s disclosure of the manner in which her baby died lacks complexity. But these are hardly fatal to the book’s project. Gentle Songs is a well written, well judged and highly meritorious debut.

Control of pace and tone is also essential to Wellington-based writer Barbara Strathdee’s first novel, Café Wars. It is set in Trieste, characterised here as a kind of no-man’s land between western Europe and the Balkans, at the time of the internecine civil conflict which attended the disintegration of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. But it is only tangentially about that dismal period in 20th century history. The main story is that of Nicky Henderson, a 30-something New Zealander who is drawn into a circle of local artists. Max and the glamorous Silvana are planning an exhibition across the border in Ljubljana, and ask Nicky, who is a freelance art critic and commentator, to write an essay for the accompanying catalogue. She is happy to oblige – at first.

Tensions, meanwhile, are escalating in Slovenia, which has attempted to secede from the Yugoslavian Federation. The Serbian-dominated Federation responds with threats and then violence. Nicky, Max and Silvana cannot ignore the crisis, even if, like Silvana, they want to. Max and Silvana both have friends and relations across the troubled region, who visit regularly to report.

As the situation deteriorates, it does and does not affect the three. Silvana will not discuss the war: it evokes memories of other, older conflicts that have torn the region asunder. Max begins to doubt the worth of his art in light of what is happening, and his moodiness causes him to break up with his lover, Lorena. Lorena is enlisted by dodgy Serbians to launder money. Nicky, being a foreigner, is disconnected from it all, although she is aware of the horror and, at times, of how arbitrary is the border between troubled Slovenia and serene Trieste.

Meanwhile, in the cafés they frequent, there are border incursions, annexations and secessions going on among the group of friends, too. Max and Lorena, Max and Silvana, Silvana and Carlo, Silvana and a nameless Venetian, Max and Nicky, Nicky and Max’s friend Drago, Nicky and (in a platonic sense) Silvana … it’s a kind of Balkans of the heart. And oh, yes: there’s the war. The war seems irrelevant to events in Trieste – that, presumably, is the novelist’s point – but it seems so irrelevant that were it removed from the story, the novel would be all but unchanged. The characters are studies in self-absorption – again, this is the point – and have to keep reminding themselves that they are living on the verge of the abyss:

Her chair faced a bridge. Nicky looked across Max’s shoulder at the balustrade topped at intervals with balls of stone. These spheres were exactly the size of human heads, the heads of enemies stuck up on posts. The war did this: it blighted every moment.

 

But the reader is not quite satisfied with the view over the characters’ shoulders. It is hard to believe in either the war or the characters. Partly, this is because the author has chosen to skip from character to character, and in the process diluted the reader’s sense of any of them. Without sympathetic characters, you hope for a strong plot. But the main narrative meanders, with the sudden intrusion of real tragedy into the lives of Max, Nicky and Silvana coming too late to revive the reader’s flagging interest. And while the tone is right – the most vividly drawn character in the novel is Trieste itself, languid and self-absorbed – there’s an irresistible sense of the author’s reach exceeding her grasp.

There’s a martial tread, too, in About Turns, another first novel, for the main character, Irene, was a marching-girl in her youth. Irene was leader of the Kingfishers, the National Champion Junior Team one year – her crowning achievement both then and since.

That was also the sole moment in her life when she was in complete control of her own and the collective destiny; since then, she’s never quite managed to hit the course-marking discs laid out on life’s paddock:

Women in books were always making decisions, taking action, whereas in real life you sort of ambled along and things happened and you looked back and realised you’d had a choice at the time, but you probably didn’t recognise it. No, choices didn’t leap out with flashing neon signs on them. They tucked themselves away among the ordinary everyday and you had to uncover them before they uncovered you.

 

We meet Irene in the present, travel back to her past to that greatest of triumphs, soured only by the loss of her friend, Paula, whom Irene replaced as leader at the urging of their ambitious coach, and return to her present as it nears a climactic encounter with the past. Irene’s latter-day friends are middle-class women on the brink of menopause, struggling with parenting and finding time to do the reading for book club. Her particular friend – the present-day counterpart to Paula – is the bossy aloof Ferrida, whom Irene admires but can’t quite manage to read.

About Turns is a comedy shot through with melancholy, an ambitious manoeuvre – the literary equivalent of the kneel-down salute – particularly for the novice. Yet Wellington writer Maggie Rainey-Smith hits all her discs: the writing wheels from the gently satirical to the wry and swings into a sombre slow march without visible effort and with near-perfect timing. It’s about growing up, and the surprising amount of growing up we do long after we stopped being children. It’s fun, but with a satisfying emotional depth.

 

John McCrystal is a Wellington writer and reviewer.

 

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