Heroes, villains, fatal flaws, Jenny Robin Jones

Catching the Current
Jenny Pattrick
Black Swan, $27.95,
ISBN 1869417259

Union Belle
Deborah Challinor
HarperCollins, $31.99,
ISBN 186950559X

The Love Apple
Coral Atkinson
Black Swan, $27.95,
ISBN 1869417208

New Zealanders, we are told, are avid for their history. To help meet the need, historical novels are being published with unprecedented generosity – and subsequently appearing on our bestseller lists. In fact, according to one publisher, chick lit and historical novels are the fiction that sells these days.

Judging from three recently published historical novels there is no stinting on the research carried out in preparation for writing. For Catching the Current, Jenny Pattrick’s  research ranged from 19th century events in New Zealand to those in the Faroes, a group of nearly 20 islands midway between Iceland and the Shetlands with strong political links to Denmark. Multiple characters give rise to multiple relating of stories, requiring not only knowledge of relevant history but also sensitivity to the way it may have been internalised by the characters.

Jenny Pattrick is not a writer of whom you might say admiringly, “Each book is so completely different”. In every one of her three novels the tone and writing style are of a piece – the born storyteller employing every trick of changing point of view, withheld information and timely authorial comment to achieve hypnosis. Catching the Current takes Con the Brake from The Denniston Rose, picks him up years earlier and presents him as a man with the sea in his veins who must “catch the current” of adventure and transform it into stories. Like his daughter Rose, Conrad is awash with heroic qualities and lovable flaws.

Pattrick’s pleasure in her storytelling is palpable and she is generous both with her research and its parsimonious rendering. The challenge of presenting relevant facts about an unfamiliar time and place without sidetracking from the story is well enough met for the story to flow with pace and authority. This works especially well when Pattrick  subtly invites us to make connections between Maori and Faroese as oral cultures dominated by predatory written ones. More often, unfortunately, she follows her impulse to tell us everything, switching place and point of view to capture every juicy morsel in the lives of our hero and heroine, Conrad and his Maori lover Anahuia.

Sometimes point of view is switched to nobler purpose, enabling Pattrick to add another dimension, when, for example, Conrad tells Anahuia a last story. Though it is his own story he tells it large, creating a tale of heroes and villains, heroics and fatal flaws, and the essentially first-person point of view allows for self-reflection: “Kone, foolish as always”, “Kone, the great fool”.

But these examples point to what pinions the novel on the side of shallow. As a character Kone/Enok/Conrad is relentlessly described in terms of easily recognisable features: tall, blond, handsome, argumentative, quick-tempered, impulsive, brave and strong. Characters are there less to develop than to fulfill their author-decreed destinies. Pattrick’s affectionate championing of Conrad makes us lazy. We don’t have to do the readerly work of creation that would make him remain with us when the book is finished. There is nothing to match the moving depiction of the latent homosexual Michael in Heart of Coal.

One can only sympathise with Deborah Challinor for wanting to maximise her painstaking research. But it’s too easy, as a reader, to tell where she has succumbed at the expense of character and story. It’s not that the union battle with the government is uninteresting, especially when it’s of the mythic significance of the 1951 waterfront lockout, but subsuming it within a love story means much of the detail must be sacrificed – and Challinor is unwilling to make the cuts. The PhD in history wants us, by the end of the novel, to have a thorough understanding of the lockout, both cause and process, and at the same time to experience the love affair between Jack Vaughan and Ellen McCabe as an enduring passion in the league of Heathcliff and Cathy.

This is a big ask and Challinor runs around like a mother hen, trying to achieve it. Paragraph by paragraph she rounds up her chicks, making sure we see them as she does. This plays havoc with point of view, rarely consistent for a page at a time. As a result of being told so much and shown so little, the reader becomes lazy and boredom looms or, since Challinor’s Children of War trilogy was a bestseller and Union Belle has appeared in the bestseller lists four times so far, settles for a fast, easy read.

Along the way there are some nice touches. Challinor builds a convincing portrait of life in a small, tightly knit town in the Waikato and resists the temptation to point out how attitudes to female roles have changed in the half century since the strike. She depicts Ellen as a young mother of the 50s, who accepts her lot with an “inward sigh” when husband Tom belatedly tells her he has invited a mate to dinner that night or calls a meeting at their home after tea and asks her to “rustle up some supper”.  Jack Vaughan, with his gentlemanly manners and offers of help in the kitchen, triggers feelings of dissatisfaction with Tom, but Challinor does not betray the reality of the times by suddenly making Ellen into a consciousness-raised feminist. The final pages of the novel, where Ellen is faced with choosing between her children and her lover, offer genuine pathos, all too quickly resolved by leaping ahead to 2004 and Ellen’s assertion that she “would do it all again”.

As with Wuthering Heights, the story is introduced by a character to whom the tale is then narrated, but in Union Belle this character feels extraneous and irrelevant. Cathy Martin, initially referred to as “she”, as though possessing greater significance than an ordinary, named character, never rises above the functional, a device to frame the story.

Close-ups of Ellen and Tom relieving themselves are delivered with such insistent detail as to raise the question of symbolic meaning, especially when coupled with Fintan the long-lived and explicitly depicted “crapping parrot” of the McCabe household. But symbolic meaning proving elusive, I settled for a fast, easy read.

The Love Apple is Coral Atkinson’s first venture into full-length fiction. Set towards the end of the 19th century, its canvas ranges from the oppressed in Ireland, through the Irish in New Zealand, the circus industry, early photography, tomato-growing, Maori interaction with Pakeha, to English notions of respectability. Atkinson divides her material into “books”, each book beginning with a short overview of life in the time and place (Hokitika 1864, Ireland 1881, Christchurch 1894, Boer War 1900, Ireland 1904), thus freeing herself to tell her story unencumbered by the need to impart history at the same time. Clearly possessing deep love for both Ireland and New Zealand, Atkinson handles her research confidently, with only the occasional lapse into information for information’s sake, as when, for example, the hero reaches for the wax matches. Was there any other kind at the time?

The author refrains from taking a moral stance while dealing with her characters’ dilemmas regarding love, duty, war. Fundamentally her characters are exploring how, within the confines of their cultures and times, they can be true to their own natures. Sometimes, as in the case of Huia, who abandons her child, their behaviour looks selfish and exploitative, but Atkinson neatly presents the inner compulsions that drive them. She handles 19th century sex well too – it’s modest without being coy, and genuinely erotic.

It needs to be, since sexuality and its imperatives figure importantly in the book. After tragically losing his beloved wife Vanessa and suffering long-term misery for indulging his lust for Huia, our young, well-born, immigrant hero Geoffrey abandons his calling as a photographer and takes up cultivation of that new symbol of love and lust, the love apple or common red tomato. Bitterness threatens and briefly it seems as if improvement in the lot of mankind can only come through the younger generation, in the form of happiness for the Irish-born waif PJ and his Kiwi Rosaleen. But of course, the novel being the genre it is, we know we are entitled to happiness. Sybil’s husband will die at the appropriate time in one of those dangerous New Zealand rivers, allowing true love to run smooth at last. In an avant-garde touch she and Geoffrey will go on holiday together. We know they will make up for lost time.

With these three books, avid New Zealanders have more history at their fingertips, but it would be a pity if, in the rush to recognise new authors, we missed out on the solid satisfactions and sense of who we are and where we came from offered by the best of our early writers. William Satchell based a couple of mean yarns around the northern gumdiggers and bush settlers, while a third dealt with the Waikato wars. They and others offer the excitement of modern historical fiction plus the added fascination of relatively enlightened views expressed when the colony was in its infancy.


Jenny Robin Jones’s Writers in Residence: A Journey with Pioneer New Zealand Writers was reviewed in our August 2004 issue.


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