Lost love, Catharina van Bohemen

Come Yesterday 
Sue Emms
Hazard Press, $29.99,
ISBN 1877270768

The Lie of the Land 
Rhonda Bartle
Hazard Press, $29.99,
ISBN 1877270814

K Road 
Ted Dawe
Longacre Press, $29.95,
ISBN 1877361194

Three second novels by literary latecomers, or writers “d’un certain age”, to steal a phrase in contest in New Zealand Books at the moment. Are they catering to the “tastes and predilections of 50-something women”? Not obviously. What these three writers have in common, apart from age, is that they’re award-winners. Ted Dawe’s first novel Thunder Road won the Best First Book Award and Senior Fiction category in the 2004 New Zealand Post Awards, and also heralded the establishment of a new imprint: Urban, at Longacre Press. Rhonda Bartle won the 1999 BNZ Katherine Mansfield Short Story Award with an excerpt from her first novel, The Gospel @ccording to Cole, and was the 2003 winner of the Richard Webster popular fiction award with her second novel The Lie of the Land. Sue Emms has been short-listed three times for the same award, and was placed third in the Sunday Star Times Short Story Competition in 2004.

The novels share some similarities. Place is important, although each writer treats it differently, and with varying degrees of success. Characters are recognisable types in prevailing local fiction – each novel has its freight of fractured relationships, people on the run, eking out a kind of life, doing drugs: a teenage smoke in an abandoned goldminers’ tunnel, on the beach at Cape Palliser, in a bar on Karangahape Road. What it means to be a parent is explored by both women writers; parents are missing in K Road: Rabbit calls his father his “sperm donor”. The protagonists in the women’s novels are under 50, but both have pasts to face. In K Road, the characters are young – quite a few die before they have a chance to have one.

Which leaves the spell of words and the impressions that linger in the reader’s mind after the story has ended.

In Emms’s Come Yesterday, the main character is Jill Nelson. She is a solo mother living with her 15-year-old son Eric in Lynburn, a small former gold-mining town, with Danni, a scary Australian. Danni runs a farm, and Jill is her housekeeper. They both have secrets and have kept them. It’s summer, a storm threatens, strangers are in town. Jill is uneasy. Eric smokes dope up in the miners’ tunnels and dreams of escape, and Danni receives anonymous intimidating letters and decides to sell the farm.

Jill lives in a state of perpetual preparedness. She doesn’t make friends, and her habitual approach to men (she is “stunning”) is rudeness. This tough-girl attitude is essential because of her secret, but it evaporates with the arrival of Matt Dawson, “a man used to getting his own way”, and it’s not long before she has “a racing heart and clammy hands”.

Come Yesterday isn’t just a love story. Mystery and violence fuel and nearly extinguish love, or is it lust? Neither Jill nor the author seem too sure. It transpires that Danni is not the intended recipient of the letters, that Jill is innocent of the crime she’s said to have committed, that her mother, not seen for 15 years, lies in a nearby hospital with a smashed face, and that Peter the priest has known her real story for ages and has only ever wanted to help her, but he “just couldn’t” tell her.

Come Yesterday has been called a “good read”. There is action and some readers may want to know what happens in the end. But, despite the “and then” sequences of kidnaps and car chases, getting there, for me, took ages. The tunnels of Lynburn serve the plot rather than create a powerful image. Characters are flat, even if three assume new names. Conversations exist to advance the action, or are unbearably banal. Mrs Johnson says of Matt’s words, “Your language is a little rough these days” – an observation applicable to the novel.

Bartle’s writing in The Lie of the Land is more nuanced. Cass is older than Jill, and rather than running away with her son, she’s running (driving, actually, in a “red Beemer”) to find him – Leo having been kidnapped by her no-good boyfriend 20 years earlier. The boyfriend’s now dead, and she roars off to Cape Palliser to find and tell Leo because that’s where she’s heard he’s living. She’s also in remission from cancer and throws an arm over her absent breast in emotional moments.  She stays at the Ferry Hotel, near Lake Onoke, the perfect mirror for self-scrutiny, where there is a sign:

Dangerous surf
Strong current
Supervise children at all times
Wave patterns unpredictable

 

This sign presages the action of the next week as she looks for Leo. He lives beneath the lighthouse and when we first meet him, he’s filleting fish. What happens? “You want details? So do I. But I don’t remember anything until he dragged me from the sand.” Needless to say, the details come: what happened over the last 20 years and, indeed, during the week at the pub, where Cass discovers that despite having only one breast, she’s still desirable.

The setting of Cape Palliser serves to expose the characters to themselves and each other and to integrate Maori history: slabs of rocks are Kupe’s sail, and at Te Humenga Point the spirits of the ancestors “make this coast a tapu place”. This prepares Cass for Leo’s relationship with Ngaia, a young woman about to have a baby, and her grandmother, Tineke, as well as her own role at the baby’s birth. The climax of cross-cultural harmony is a last supper at the pub where Matt articulates the novel’s theme of the importance of family: “Today, around the table, you looked like a family to me. You have an extended whanau now, you know, whether you like it or not.”

The novel is more tonally consistent than Come Yesterday. Bartle’s characters are likeable, although they too are rather one-dimensional. Dull dialogue and a tendency to tell too much numbs the reader’s engagement. “When we become dull, we offend your intellect,” observed Trollope.

Intellect is not offended by Ted Dawe’s K Road, a kaleidoscopic dazzle of dudes called Flash or Maus or Ozzie, whose appearances are as elusive (and allusive) as their names. In vignettes that have the flash of film, Dawe spotlights the taggers, trannies, cops and entrepreneurs who paint, preen or prowl K Road in search of drugs, action or sanctuary. K Road is about survival. All the characters have blighted lives – “too many trips to the tinny house” – yet they’re colourful, funny and frequently loyal despite their often tragic endings. The dark heart of their intersecting existence is exposed when a P factory explodes, in leafy suburbia. There are some powerful juxtapositions: the Te Pania bros, once kapa haka performers, now bouncers, are snapped by their Uncle Mahu just after the Celebrating Polynesia Parade along K Road in which their cousins were in the Maori group. He’s sorry they’ve missed the parade; they don’t even know about it, have come to bash up an Asian student for a bent boss.

The novel loses its hip-hop thrust with the appearance of Roxy and Jazz. Both runaways, but they love each other. Of course it doesn’t work; Roxy vanishes, Jazz drifts around the streets, and the novel drifts north to Cape Reinga where Jazz is taken by Flash and Rabbit, two surfers with links to the K Road habitués.

Despite this structural slippage, K Road is an engrossing read. Dawe has been credited with taking the language of teenagers and making it into a “kind of poetry of the street”. An experienced teacher, he knows how boys talk; their exchanges are rich with verbal, historical and literary japes, of which they’re mostly unaware. His eye is clear, his judgement subtle, his understanding compassionate.

 

Catharina van Bohemen is a Northland reviewer.

 

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