Salt and vinegar, Penelope Todd

Rachel McAlpine
Hazard Press, $29.99,
ISBN 1877270970  

The Black Madonna 
Tina Shaw
Penguin, $28.00,
ISBN 0143019880

Two books by New Zealand women: one is a full-immersion Kiwi experience, the other set in Germany and America, and bears no obvious whiff of its writer’s origins. Humming, Rachel McAlpine’s first novel in 15 years, takes the reader on a wacky, funny, sunny trip. Nestled in Golden Bay, Petitport is yet large enough to accommodate a full complement of eccentrics. Scene one: Ivan the artist appears at the open villa door towards which Jane is running, naked, to leap at him and be carried to the bedroom where they form in short order “a Möbius strip of flesh”. This is probably Jane’s most energetic moment but there’s plenty of vigour in this robust provincial tale.

If you’ve hung around Motueka way, you may have met Ivan, with his beard, caravan, and minor-god complex (though none of his friends ever confronts Ivan in his hubris, and we know what that comes before); Xania, the uptight anorexic Tai Chi teacher; Jing with the angel face and pastel scraps of filmy clothing: the benign, flawed inhabitants of a clime that mimics paradise. There are native snails, tidal flats, chive and cheese scones, the Takaka Hill.

Jane is hard-working, prone to losing her boundaries with the man she loves, and blunderingly honest – except that she wills herself to believe in the mystifying, low-frequency hum that visits Ivan’s head. It might be tinnitus, but what if it’s God speaking very, very slowly? For Jane, “Hearing the hum was a triumph of love.” But she’s slow to recognise her own servility, or a bored man – even, or especially, when he’s in her bed.

McAlpine plays – with language, with the loopy story-line and with her characters whom she gives free rein to be their peculiar selves, and to develop in ad hoc fashion; we don’t, for example, find out until the very end that Jane’s first marriage was tragic and debasing or that she has a “dear daughter” whom it’s convenient to bring in for the finale. Each character is comically and unironically bent on his or her own course, while, as in life, their various altruisms are ultimately undermined by desires and schemes – their own or others’.

You can tell from early on that Xania will come to a sticky end, that Ivan needs a two-handed face slap and that Jane could do with a shot of illumination.

I had to consult the terribly useful Self-editing for Fiction Writers so I could figure out what was going on with the point of view. McAlpine, I discovered, performs third-person, jumping from head-to-head, occasionally within a single scene, which is why I had trouble sometimes knowing which way I was facing. The author’s not beyond poking her own beak in either, just to remind you whose nest you’re in: “Jane still thought this was weird, and so she should have.”

When Jane and Ivan “became the first couple in the world to make love with Coca-Cola cans strapped over their ears”, I laughed out loud. McAlpine’s kind of humour is refreshing and rare in New Zealand writing: salted with a wry wisdom, lightly vinegared with irony. (Well, I think it is.) Although clunky at times and adverbially overloaded, the storytelling is a sort of sophisticated Five Go Adventuring, what with Powelliphanta smuggling and its denouement in the fish factory (Jane and lawyer Julius locked in the snail cupboard, Jane oddly lucid and headache-free in spite of having been knocked unconscious).

If reading Humming is like a joggle in the Mighty Mouse at Luna Park (400 metres of train track in 61 seconds), with jerking, right-angled turns over the water, that leaves you disconcerted and oddly delighted, Tina Shaw’s novel The Black Madonna is the TGV that glides you so smoothly from A to B, the journey is best appreciated with recollection and reflection. Shaw’s writing is accomplished, confident, unobtrusive. When I first dipped into the book, I noted it was in present tense, which I’m wary of; it can feel as if you’re being spoon-fed by an inattentive nurse whose shift is about to finish. However, I was soon swallowing as fast as she could go, and we didn’t slop a bit.

It’s 1935; Berlin is heating up under Hitler; citizens are disappearing; cries are heard in the night; the Lebensborn programme contrives to have fertile young Aryan women inseminated by Nazi officers. The apartment to which 28-year-old Luise repairs from a small country town after a short, failed marriage has its resident Blockleiter and his pryingly sinister wife.

Lonely when she’s not working, and at a loose end, Luise takes it upon herself to carve a Madonna, and anticipation builds as she finds a suitable hunk of wood, arranges for its delivery, buys tools and begins to examine and sketch the features of various Madonnas, and her own. Luise meets black American Jimmy Wango. A wrestler by that name was involved in an incident in Nuremberg which almost cost Hitler “his” Olympic Games but, beyond the bare facts of the incident, Wango is Shaw’s credible fiction: gentle, but tense and wary when he’s not fighting, and as lonely as Luise. Their affair is fraught with danger. One night, marinated in terror, having witnessed the public humiliation of a German woman and her Jewish lover by Polizei, Luise wakes, feverish, to find that she’s painted her Madonna and child black.

In entering the challenging relationships with these dark figures (man and Madonna) Luise is affirmed in her own generative powers and, paradoxically perhaps, finds her way out of the gathering darkness. Pregnant, she flees Germany for Harlem, and the Madonna, tipped from the apartment window, is set off on her own miracle-seeding journey.

Of all the characters, Luise is strangely the least graspable; she might be the Aryan double of the Madonna whose archetypal nature transcends particularity. Likewise, Berlin itself (where the author was the Creative New Zealand writer-in-residence 2001-2), except as a location for events, remains indistinct as a European city. Shaw excels in creating rich atmospheres between characters: the air simmers around Luise and Jimmy; while between the taciturn caretaker Uhm and his friend Harold seethes a compost of unplumbed emotion as they fret over what to do with the lovely but inconvenient and unconsecrated black Madonna.

In the last quarter of the narrative, it’s 2004 and an American relative Jack is in Berlin to find out what he can of Jimmy’s last fight. Through Jack, Shaw presents a moving contemplation on what it means to remember. His final gleanings, once assembled, form a pattern spanning past and present that is apt and satisfying.

If language is the life-blood of a culture, then a New Zealand author making her German protagonists speak English is effectively giving us a translation, isn’t she? It’s a dubbing effect (except when Luise actually does speak her second-language version of English with Wango). The language used in no way jeopardises the tale, but can this be called an authentically German story? It’s patently not a New Zealand one, but perhaps a sort of global hybrid. Also, how far can a writer go in bestowing gifts? To Luise, Shaw offers a slick translation, to Wango more polished turns of phrase and syntax than might be warranted in a man with no schooling, while she confers (her own?) writerly sensibilities on a 12-year-old boy, the unlikely child of relentlessly mean-spirited parents, who recognises words as gifts and that “a gift can be your saving grace”; he dreams of being a poet like Goethe. But in the end Shaw’s competence as a writer excuses her generosity.

The statue’s journey and influence stretches probability – but, then, it’s a story about grace, about the kind of strange and synchronous events that are said to cluster around a figure like the Madonna, and about brave incursions into other worlds where new syntheses may then occur.


Penelope Todd is a Dunedin writer and editor. Her YA novel Box was reviewed in our December 2005 issue.


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