A Red Silk Sea
The Linoleum Room
Her Body Rises: Stories & Poems
Ranstead’s, Robinson’s and Slaughter’s are all first books by New Zealand women. They have in common a world of violence, dark secrets and women falling.
Gillian Ranstead’s A Red Silk Sea begins with Laurie, a “beautiful, intelligent and wasted … golden girl falling from the skies and dashed upon the earth” after throwing herself, reluctantly, from the window of a very high hotel restaurant. It all happens very quickly. We spend the rest of the long novel uncovering the reasons, through the recollections of the two people closest to her: her mother Käthe, a “communist” survivor of Auschwitz, but not of the small South Auckland town where she has come to teach German; and Cam, who has lived all her life in the violent, racist, ugly society of Waipahu, and not known any better until Laurie arrives to shine her “sliver of mirror” on what is seen locally as “the ordinary and everyday”. Says Cam, “She lit it up and made it unbearable.”
Käthe survived the holocaust, but she finds Waipahu unendurable and retreats inside her house. This is a novel in which the term “holocaust” is not used of the Nazi horrors – though they are presented with disturbing force – but of the lasting result of dispossession, of people cut off from their history, their self-esteem, their open-heartedness. Old Rangimarie, for whom Käthe writes her terrible story, makes an inherent parallel in the history of Waipahu:
This war was the harshest cataclysm, the one that began
in the locked down hearts and mind and stayed there. It had left a hundred-year sadness in Api’s eyes and a holocaust of violence, abuse and death that did the damage these days …
This “holocaust” is, however, not just a Maori problem in Waipahu. Fatherless Laurie is about the only teenager in town who doesn’t get beaten to a pulp by a dutiful father. Beatings and rapes are a ritual part of keeping people in line. A man kicks a pregnant girl so badly she loses the baby. Another is beaten and gang-raped because she takes the monstrous Betty-Jane’s boyfriend. Cam herself is beaten in the street by her father (who pulls her dress over her head to do it), then shocked by the unprecedented slapping, shoving, kicking and swearing from her mother. And next door, Käthe, the barometer of local violence, stays in her room for days.
What Waipahu and Nazi Germany have in common is the slow acceptance of normalcy in their horror. Perhaps, though, neither Auschwitz nor Waipahu are, in the last analysis, the reason for Laurie’s fall. There’s a more fundamental problem – men and their expectation of possession:
“If it’s just one man you’re with,” Laurie reckoned, “they want all of you, they want your whole life. But if you’re with lots of men, they can only have you for a night or a week and that’s it. You keep your own life for yourself, that part of you that’s just you and no one else – it stays that way, intact.”
Her downfall is just the inevitable heart-throb after that.
A Red Silk Sea is a big, complex novel – all encompassing like the arms of the “isthmus city” with which it has a major love affair going – full of people and stories, and as atmospheric as the cover Athena Sommerfeld wraps around it.
In The Linoleum Room, Robinson has imagined up a novel that keeps us reading to the burning end, even though we read a tale flawed in the telling. It’s a first-person narration by Annabelle who has, for years, been locked inside her own hissy-fit about her father and stepmother having created a baby while her mother was still dying of cancer. The trouble in the telling is partly that Annabelle cannot know what has been happening inside the locked room of her even more disturbed stepsister, Mia, at whose invitation she has escaped from her life after finding her boyfriend in bed with her hated half-sister, Emily.
To get round this problem, Robinson inserts two sections of third-person narration labelled “Mia”. And then, to make it look like a series of first-person narratives, Robinson inserts four short sections narrated by Gary, the farm manager. Gary’s function, besides breaking up Annabelle’s incessant I, I, I, is to provide comic relief, but he is not funny, and neither is he credible as a character. He’s just a bad caricature, a figure of fun for the horrible real characters of the novel to feel superior about. If the novel had been made a third-person narrative, then the problem of Annabelle’s overwrought whingeing would also have been addressed.
Emily (who has just attempted suicide) and older half-brother Matthew – the two likeable characters in the novel – are sent by the parents to join Mia and Annabelle for a cosy, bonding Christmas, while said parents are happily holidaying down south. It seems particularly heartless, but, hell, it serves the plot to have the kids there in the deserted farmhouse at Domestic Violence time – and at the end of the millennium. And, just to ratchet things up, Annabelle’s ex-boyfriend is added to the mix. Given the family history of spontaneous combustion, things are bound to get heated, and they do – chillingly so – but only after Mia’s crippling fall.
It’s perhaps a mistake to criticise the characters for a tendency to caricature or sudden personality transplant (Mia from battered doll to butch worm-farmer, Annabelle from cold bitch to caring nurse), since they can’t be measured against real, living people, but must be seen rather as actors role-playing. The whole gothic performance makes perfect sense this way, fits nicely with Chris Coad’s surreal, claustrophobic image of net-wrapped trees on the cover.
If Ranstead’s and Robinson’s novels seem self-consciously fictionalised, Tracey Slaughter’s Her Body Rises consciously blurs the distinction by interspersing fictions with poetry, and by opening with the story “Wheat” in which the protagonist attends a class on writing autobiography. “Wheat”, which won the Bank of New Zealand Katherine Mansfield Award in 2004, presents us with a perfect set of ambiguities which, like everything else in this book, rewards re-reading. Here is the lyrical beauty of a milk and honey (mother and child) world into which the nice policeman intrudes equivocally after hell has sucked them in.
The world Slaughter’s book hails from is much like the small town of Ranstead’s characters, but Slaughter conveys it all in language which permits no moralising: “The moon drove over the edge by the beach where young girls/back down in station wagons”. When “he takes her to a dark flat/they go wild with patrimony”. The point is never laboured.
Matrimony is hardly a viable option in Slaughter’s stories. “Sleeping Over” seems to present the ideal father:
that mix of teasing fun and yes-sir authority all kids look up to … the kind of Dad who got on all fours and gave you bucking pony rides, who told stupid riddles and poured extra goo on your ice-cream when no one was watching … .
But we begin to see that he leaves a trail of neurotic and suicidal destruction behind him. And Slaughter’s subtly suggestive language insinuates something more than a hula when “he made us die of giggles from doing it with us”.
One of the troubles is the “childhood impression that women weren’t fitted with quite enough bones, so an extra skeleton was sewn into their clothes” (“Her First”). But, if her body does not rise, a woman’s bones have a habit of rising through her skin. The small daughter of the vet sees the “bones beneath her mother’s face seem suddenly to get very close to the surface” (“The Smallness of Bones”), by which we know that the woman is going under. In “Flyleaf” the disposed-of woman’s bones rise through her body and are picked up, through the rotten floorboards of the old house, by Chloe, who won’t heed her abandoning father. She handles the flyblown lamb, Cinders, which the father neither treats nor euthanases. In Chloe’s world there are crusty sores “like scrapings from the barbeque”, coils of furry shit, and all the murdered woman’s treasures to observe and play with. In the end things will go to blazes for reasons that have nothing to do with “the plot”, as they do in Robinson’s novel.
The poems complicate the stories. The book’s title is from the poem “Ophelia practises her autograph”:
she lies inside
a square of light
her body rises
to the occasion
But Ophelia, spurned, is best known for having drowned and resurfaced in Pre-Raphaelite paintings. Even the titles of the poems – “Magnificat Falling”, “Gravida, Gravida” – tell us which way her body goes.
The final story, “Dialogue With Distance”, puts it all together without importing a holocaust victim. It’s just widowed Nana, having come from England for Christmas, “a woman who cannot stand upright here”, falling and falling only to “resurface each time without a piece of history”. Still, a photograph of her great-grandson leaping recalls her raising her arms to dance with a distant partner.
Through all the morbid straining for self in mirrors, the obsession with skin and bones, the endless insult and abuse and abandonment, survival might seem in doubt: “But the children are insistent. Their bodies are not constrained by our history, but straining forward into their own.” It’s a more hopeful end than that of A Red Silk Sea, though that novel does leave some room for hope. Those who inhabit The Linoleum Room are, fortunately, unlikely to produce any children.
Vivienne Jepsen is a Wellington writer, who is currently finishing a travel book about going to Turkey.