Alice and Luigi
David Ling, $29.99,
In Touch with Grace
Black Swan, $27.99,
As we grow older, we look over our shoulders. We want to see where we came from, whether our idiosyncrasies and strengths are our own or inherited. Indeed, what were our forbears like and how can knowing about them sharpen our perception of ourselves and the world we inhabit now? Both of these novels use their writers’ families to tell stories at once particular and universal. Alice and Luigi is a genuine historical novel based on Graeme Lay’s paternal great-grandparents, Alice and Luigi Berretti. Lay emphasises the link between past and present by interspersing the historical story with that of William, the present-day descendant, who deciphers and comes to understand photos and letters. In In Touch with Grace, this link is less overt – the novel is based on Jenny Pattrick’s mother, and she uses aspects of her life to examine different ways of growing old. “We are all interested in the old,” she says. “They are our mothers and fathers – or ourselves.” In Touch is also less “historical”, set in the early 90s, with Grace and her friends debating the merits of MMP and remembering the 1981 Springbok Tour.
In Alice and Luigi, Luigi Galoni leaves Pesaro in 1878 to join an ill-fated Italian settlement at Jackson Bay in the Haast where the government of the day hoped a newly established Italian community would grow grapes and mulberry trees. The climate defeats plants and men: Luigi arrives but the “Eye-ties” have moved elsewhere except for his friend Leopold, who’d lured him “alla fine del mondo” with descriptions of the country’s beauty. Luigi’s journey south from Wellington, and his life as a road-worker, are typical Lay: pleasure in evoking the landscape with its rivers, rains and corrugated iron huts, and skill in showing the doggedness and ingenuity of men at work. He has fun merging real life identities and attitudes. Luigi rides on an early Newman brothers’ coach to Westport, meets a bitter bootmaker, whose competitor, Robert Hannah, has established several successful shoe shops. He attends a political rally where Seddon hurls invective against non-British immigrants. He falls in love with the bootmaker’s daughter whom he abandons, but later marries after she appears (pregnant) at Makara where he has joined Italian fishermen. Their tough life is eased the day Luigi rescues a screaming child – Kathleen Beauchamp pinned to a log by a bull. Harold rewards him with a BNZ bank loan, enabling the family to move to Paremata where there is a school for the children, and the young KM writes him a short story: “The Bull”.
What makes Alice and Luigi enjoyable is Lay’s affection for his decent, courageous characters. You might want to know more, especially about the indomitable Alice, but mainly you want them to succeed. They fit convincingly into their muddy backdrop of settler New Zealand where immigrants had to endure hostile physical conditions and xenophobia. Pejoratives for non-British settlers pepper the story, but although “Pomeranians”, “Bohemians” and “Chows” are darkly regarded, fair-play is also present: “Gotta give him a fair go … ” Except for Luigi’s friend Percy Watene, Maori are absent, although Luigi’s musical ear delights in Maori words. This is not a story about land skirmishes, but of poor people wanting something more and achieving it by determination and faith.
The plaiting of fact and fiction makes you smile, Harold Beauchamp tells Luigi of his reservations about the school he must send his daughters to; but it triumphs in the Frances Hodgkins portrait of Babette on the novel’s cover. Lay’s great-aunt Alice Berretti (Babette in the portrait) inherited Luigi’s Northern Italian red hair, and its radiance really did captivate Hodgkins. Using the painting as cover pays tribute not only to his great-grandparents, but also to the importance of art in a country where Luigi, who plays his accordion throughout the story, was told on arrival that “this country could do with more music”.
In Alice and Luigi, Luigi hears of the settlement at Denniston, whose lives have been recorded in Jenny Pattrick’s best-selling Denniston novels. They are full of music – people sing and dance, and Pattrick conducts them with an impresario’s verve. I am not sure that she achieves the same deftness in In Touch with Grace. Her characteristic humour prevails, but the ballad-like rhythm of the Denniston stories is absent. This may be because historical distance expanded her imagination, whereas writing about more recent events and known people cramps her fluency. Indeed, the deaf, bigoted, or Buddhist bowls players, with their erratic brilliant hits and observations, are perhaps a metaphor for the whole book.
The other impediment to the novel’s flow is Pattrick’s decision to use letters to reveal her characters. The story revolves around Grace’s relationship with Max and her subsequent involvement with his family. They write to each other – they’re old, he’s deaf, she’s a bossy teacher, and their letters work well enough. After his death, Grace becomes involved with his family, and Mildred, her best friend, moves to Christchurch. The resulting correspondence, scattered between games at the bowling club and Max’s grand-daughter Sally Friedman’s struggles as a young drama student, is jerky and unconvincing, especially that between Grace and Sheila, the scarf-wearing God-fearing daughter-in-law.
Jenny Pattrick is keenly alert to the inconsequential details that deepen and colour conversation. The novel’s funniest exchanges among the old bowlers take place at the bowling club: whether to get a second medical opinion from a “good doctor with a solid NZ training”, what to wear at the marae (“Shoes you can take off without bending down”) or old Mrs Peddie with her precarious balance and random pronouncements: “I was in the Diggers you know… just the chorus.”
The climax of the novel is Sally Friedman’s dramatic monologue – about Grace’s part in the Springbok Tour. Everyone comes, and, despite Grace’s fears that “no one will find her life entertaining”, it’s an affirmation of friendship, history and a “determination to live a valuable life”.
Both novels salute the courage to surmount obstacles. Lay’s great-grandparents exemplify immigrant experience; gritty Grace and her exuberant friends refuse to “go gentle into that good night”.
Catharina van Bohemen is an Auckland reviewer.