A Short History of Paradise
How often can one say of local fiction, and mean it, that it’s an absolute delight to read? Known as a writer of prize-winning short stories and children’s fiction, Norman Bilbrough’s first-ever novel for adults is like chick lit for hippies: comedic, plotty and with hairy characters whose outlines are drawn in strong, fearless indelible ink. But while most chick lit is based on close and hopefully witty observation of the social mores and personalities of contemporary urban life with particular emphasis on lipstick and shoes, Bilbrough’s hippie-lit is a little more dated (although, of course, human nature doesn’t date), there is particular emphasis on cannabis, and the closest it gets to urban is Blenheim.
Our literature is not known for its sense of light-hearted fun – more often, we brood, we revel in reticence, we toy with noir, and of course all that dark meaningfulness can be wonderfully, ponderously indulgent. But it takes a special sort of talent to produce a novel whose consistent note is of easy, earthy enjoyment and affectionate irony.
It is set in Marlborough, in “a long valley between Blenheim and Nelson”, in the 1970s and early 80s, on a hippie commune called, rather cornily, Paradise – the kind of place Bilbrough himself lived for a time and, to be sure, there is a definite feel of on-the-spot anthropological observation.
Most of the story takes place in 1981 – a year that for many of us is synonymous with political upheaval and turbulence, but neither Muldoon nor the Springbok tour warrant even a whisper here, and soccer is the only sport anyone’s interested in. Paradise is its own little world, its own headspace, a frothy fantasy powered by optimism and human failing. Full of recognisable characters – the earnest vegetarian, the overly loving woman, the weirdo dope-head, the self-serving villain whose ideals are all in his trousers (the “serpent”’ in Paradise, perhaps) – they nevertheless emerge from under Bilbrough’s pen with a fresh chortle of life.
In fact, Bilbrough manages to breathe personality into even the most inane and inanimate objects with his sharp little metaphors and ironic gaze. White bread is “blasphemous”; the stench of sardines “seems to signal the possibility of anarchy”; a sheet of yellowed paper on which is written the original aims of the commune appears in the corner of the kitchen noticeboard “as if it were partially ashamed of its presence”.
While the plot clips along nicely and dramas certainly occur – drug heists, even murder – the real story resides in the characters and their various relationships – loving, exploitative – with one another. For the most part, the story revolves around Lucy, first encountered as a breathlessly naive 17-year-old whose sense of possibility – among other things – is aroused by a hippy (“freak”’) stranger who tells her that, rather than going to secretarial college, she must give unconditional love to everybody, beginning with him. Thrilled and flattered by this false knowledge, Lucy becomes a prostitute (masseuse, as she likes to think of it), her love for the world seeming “so palpable she was sure others must see it as one could see heat waves twisting off bitumen”. Her essential innocence remains unsullied, though, rather in the manner of the pregnant yet “Virgin” Mary. (With a characteristic smirk of amusing insightfulness into the shallowness of such conversions, though, the novelist wrily notes that Lucy’s “wonderful rising waves of love hadn’t yet encompassed her parents”.) Lucy is pathetic yet heroic, laid low by her utter naivety, her belief in others and her total disregard for her own feelings. The novel encapsulates her journey to self-knowledge.
Bilbrough’s characters may be types, but they’re not one-dimensional. Even when he’s poking fun at a character – even someone as palpably unlikeable as villainous Jug – he still offers small moments of tenderness and vulnerability. His minute observations of people are vivid: Martha, the powerful and irritable wife of Jug, has “eyes that could beat you up’”; after drinking boiled cactus, the hippies lie about “like dazed blowflies”; Jug, on the verge of yet another sexual conquest, “liked the taste of her mouth: it possessed a certain clean naivety” – and so on. In short, the language is a constant delight, and frequently hilarious.
Bilbrough is often cruel to his characters. They are revealed to us in all their vanity and insecurity, whether they are goodies or baddies. We like Tony, who comes closest to being the hero: he’s hardworking, honest if incredibly gullible, and faithful in his private love for Lucy. He keeps a diary, where his hopes and dreams are revealed in language as childish and embarrassing as, well, as one’s own diary.
Unlike much serious literature, Bilbrough’s doesn’t seem to be grappling with any issues of national identity – not even with the interesting question of what happened to all those long-haired, anti-establishment idealists, most of whom are now probably running the country in one way or another. Yet his light-hearted mood is like a dinghy bobbing around over the murky depths of human nature. He’s far from dewy-eyed: Paradise is rotten at its core, and his novel is a demolishing satire, partly on youthful idealism, mainly on the self-servingness of those hippy ideals of sharing, whether that be of food, money or sex. Free love, he shows us, was only free for some: for most, it was painfully wrapped in jealousy, longing and possessiveness.
Kissing Shadows is Renée’s attempt to make sense of events in her own background. It’s indeed a novel, but it’s rooted in her experience of being part-Maori, poor and only four at the time her Pakeha father committed suicide in 1934, when he was just 27. Like the character in this novel, Renée’s father really did shoot himself under the Thorndon railway bridge in Wellington, although he lived in Hawke’s Bay and no-one knew how or when he had come to the capital. Following the suicide, Renée’s mother travelled to Wellington to attend the coroner’s inquest – and that was really all Renée ever actually knew about those sad yet far-reaching events.
Kissing Shadows takes these essential facts – the effect of a husband’s suicide on a wife and children; the struggle to survive the Depression of the 1930s – and gives them to a fictional family. It’s true that one of the characters borrows heavily from Renée’s own life. Vivvie in the story is four at the time of her father’s suicide, lives in grinding poverty with a mother who truly struggles after her husband dies, is forced to leave school at 12 to work in a printing factory, has many of the hopes and dreams Renée herself had as a young person. And yet so much was unknown about the circumstances of her father’s suicide – her mother also died while Renée was a teenager – that she decided fiction was the best means of exploration.
It’s an approach that works well, and the inner lives of the characters she’s created come to seem as real as the gritty reality of 1930s Hawke’s Bay, and the aftermath of the Napier earthquake. Also – and it’s worth noting that Renée is now well into her 70s – she offers an implicit commentary on the nature of the passage of time: it travels in a circular fashion through the memories of her characters, hinting at the multiple realities we all inhabit, simultaneously, as past informs present and vice versa.
This is something Renée pulls off with great skill, and there is a real sense of events and personal histories unfolding of their own volition, with minimal interference from her as storyteller.
The Oxford Companion to New Zealand Literature notes of Renée that she is a “lesbian feminist with socialist working-class ideals” – all rather unfashionable labels at present. In fact, while her plays made an enormous impact in the early 1980s, she has become rather typecast for what the Dictionary characterises as “straightforward, simple realism with an easily discernible agenda of issues”. Kissing Shadows, for the most part, dispenses with such “simple realism”, and treads into trickier territory – the inner lives of characters under extraordinary duress. Perhaps this is because she began with her characters and the need to divine motivation and to establish empathy, rather than to make political points about “issues’’.
On the surface there’s not much to unite Renée’s and Bilbrough’s novels. And yet there are similarities: both arise from the lives of their authors. Both reflect bygone eras that predominantly live in the memories of people who have since grown past those experiences. Each provides a window to the past, although Renée’s story is a more generalised portrait of an era; Bilbrough’s communes were always a sideline, part of the Western counter-culture, although no less defining for that in the lives of individuals. The essential difference in the tone of the two novels, though, is symbolised by the relative place of the individual in each period. The Depression of the 1930s forced terrible hardships upon people, and survival was a basic uniting imperative. In such times, people struggle against forces larger than themselves and the individual is subsumed into the collective. In Paradise, the characters also struggle (or not, if they’re lazy or stoned) on the land, but it’s a lifestyle choice that will, we know from our own observations, be eventually abandoned in favour of easier options. In such settings, the community is an ideal, yet it’s constantly thwarted by the individualism of its adherents.
In the final analysis, both these novels meditate – one rollickingly, one rather more sadly – upon love and the damage that can be done in its name. But perhaps novels are always about this.
Margie Thomson is an Auckland reviewer.