The Fossil Pits
Victoria University Press, $29.95,
With her debut novel, Queen of Beauty, Paula Morris won both the 2001 Adam Foundation Prize for Creative Writing and the New Zealand Society of Authors Hubert Church Best First Book Award for fiction at the 2003 Montana New Zealand Book Awards.
Her equally impressive second novel, Hibiscus Coast, begins with the return to Auckland of Emma Taupere, tempted home by the machinations of her ex-lover, Siaki, and his ambitious, meticulous plans to make a fortune out of the greed of art collectors. She returns from Shanghai, where, while exploring her dual heritage – half Maori, half Chinese – she was trained as a painter, an art she learned through mimicry. Housed, if not quite imprisoned, in an apartment empty but for the unseen art on its walls, Emma’s solitary task is to copy two of the most valuable Goldie portraits held by the Auckland Museum. Impeding her progress, though, are various complications. As well as her musings upon and scruples about the nature and value of art and, in particular, originality, there are the distractions of an extended family who make unwanted claims upon her, the remnants of her former relationships with both Siaki and the lover who left her in Shanghai, the possibilities of a future relationship glimpsed from her narrow window, and the constant efforts of the other players in this detailed scam to uncover her identity and thus control her skill.
It’s a fantastic concept, I think, executed well. There’s a lot going on, across a large cast of characters, and the stories move fast. In fact, its compulsive speed gives Hibiscus Coast something of the feel of a movie script – in the Bruce Willis mould – making it an effortless summer read.
That cinematic effect is partly achieved by the urban settings of the novel, both Auckland and Shanghai, which simply teem with characters and stories. Hibiscus Coast offers a representation of the urban environment which is populated by alienated, isolated individuals, not networks, who may coexist, but who lead independent and rather lonely lives. So these characters are reclusive and antisocial, estranged from family, without friends, often nocturnal, often disliked, who live alone in temporary or borrowed spaces which exhibit evidence only of other people’s lives: Luke lives in his grandparents’ house, complete with all their furnishings; Emma lives in a slick, bare apartment whose owner is overseas; Ani is housesitting for her aunt, having been thrown out of her own home by her mother. Even when united in purpose, the characters of the novel are kept separate by their very different perceptions of shared events, and by their competing agendas. Rather than intersecting, they tend to collide with each other, brought together often only by the rather tenuous connections of pure coincidence or proximity, “on the other side of the city”. It’s an environment, and a way of life, which is represented as utterly unpredictable and slightly uncontrollable, ungoverned by either habit or a web of relationships, and it allows the plot to move in equally unpredictable, exciting directions.
The pace, breadth and energy, the breathlessness of the novel, though, can detract somewhat from the weightier issues it grapples with. For Hibiscus Coast also explores the nature of originality, through a variety of forms and complex hierarchical layerings. The relationship between the forged and the original Goldie paintings (already notorious for their reproduction) is compared to the relationship between the paintings and those who sat for them in the first place, with the art objects acting as mere simulacra of the real people. Emma is represented as the “original” of which her cousin, Ani, is a poor copy, though often still a substitute – almost the same, but not quite. Though the novel accepts that the commercial value of art is reliant upon originality, it denies the importance of uniqueness to the cultural value of art, and refuses to offer a final definition of art itself, asserting that “art [is] not about reproducing the real”, but about “challenging our notion of the real”, even while asserting that art has the potential to encapsulate and produce the real. These ideas, contradictory and fragmented as they are in the novel, ferment in the reader’s imagination long after the chase of the plot has run its course.
Like Morris, Tim Corballis’ writing has met with acclaim, and prizes. Consistently reviewed as one of the bright young things of New Zealand writing, his first novel, Below (2001), won the Adam Foundation Prize for Creative Writing, while his second, Measurement (2002), preceded his winning the Creative New Zealand Berlin Writers’ Residency for 2005.
The Fossil Pits continues those earlier novels’ concern with landscape, exploring the relationship between people and place, across both time and space. A young New Zealander meets up in London with his estranged aunt, Diane, who asks him to tell the story she’s been attempting to write herself, with little success, for most of her life. That story is of amateur palaeontologist, Walter Mantell, and his 1848 journey through the east coast of the South Island to set aside reserves for Ngai Tahu, within a much larger block purchased, however contentiously, by the New Zealand government. Fluent in Maori, and reputed to have “rapport” with the natives, Mantell – a reluctant coloniser – is accompanied by a disinterested surveyor, Wills. That story becomes interspersed and intertwined with Diane’s own, set on the very same piece of land Mantell traversed, of her unhappy and violent marriage to a man who, in many ways, embodies the same colonial mindset as Mantell: who exploits the land, possesses it, who sees it – and his wife – as a “space to be subdivided and rationalised”.
It’s a very complex narrative structure: a first-person voice retelling two third-person accounts, one of which is also a retelling, offering three distinct casts of characters, and three storylines, while producing yet more in their multiple intersections. It’s made even more complex by the gradual collapse of the boundaries between these voices. Initially, the original narrator is – perfectly understandably – just confused about which details belong to whose story, “hearing Diane’s voice and confusing it with Mantell’s”, “having difficulty distinguishing between what Diane had told him] and what [he] [him]self imagined”. Then, the third-person narratives of Diane and Mantell begin to slip in and out of first person, escaping the mediation of the initial narrator. Finally, the personas coalesce into a single unity, the first-person voice shifting between them, across time and place, erasing entirely the distinctions between them.
The effect of these shifts in narration is to embody one of the central themes of the novel: the relative insignificance of the individual – indeed, the human – when compared with the land and its history. The Fossil Pits presents the perspective of what it calls “the geological eye”, a view of such length that human history can only be seen as petty and irrelevant against the eons the land has already endured. In this context, both the colonial enterprise and Diane’s emotional trauma, alike, are diminished. Famously in Tennyson’s In Memoriam, in the face of great loss such a sentiment is both a consolation and a lament (“The hills are shadows, and they flow/From form to form, and nothing stands”). In Corballis’ novel, both Diane and Mantell seek consolation, yet there is no lament, little relief, no striving for anything better, and the tone is relentlessly matter-of-fact. They seek, either in fossils, or in the lines of the land they live on, evidence of a world which underlies and outlasts the one they live in so unhappily: “a world behind the world, a faded, strange prehistoric world which he grasped and kept close to himself in the face of anything and everything else.”
Despite the detailed intricacies, for instance, of colonial politics as they are represented in the novel, as well as their clear and lasting impact on the Maori who contest Mantell’s endeavours, the representation of the colonial encounter lacks human drama, constantly undercut as it is by characters who look beyond and through such drama to “the bones under the surface of the land”, seeking a landscape free of what Diane calls the “weight of culture”:
all were easily ignored, in favour of a ‘view’ of the landscape of our trip in a single line … behind a mist of spray from the ocean, behind the shimmer that made the land itself seem as unstable as the sea abutting it. This imagining, and, suddenly, a clear view of the ground at my feet, the only surface worth studying carefully: trodden clay, the remains of tussocks, and an irregularly shaped stone.
What all this amounts to, though, is an invitation not to care about the characters, or the immediate issues they grapple with, and it’s an invitation so compellingly put, so comprehensively argued, that I found it impossible to refuse. The Fossil Pits is quite a different novel to Hibiscus Coast. It is much smarter, and much more demanding of the reader. It is a novel I admired greatly, for its writing, its technique, and its vision, but I found it unlikeable, and far too cold for the beach.
Louise O’Brien is a Wellington reviewer.