Harper Collins, $39.99,
A Secret Mind
Black Swan, $27.99,
Sylvia lay awake listening to the mournful cry of a morepork. Another noise, a soft shuffling, suddenly came from the hallway. A bush creature must have ventured in through an open window, she guessed, slipping out of bed and peering along the passage. Seeing nothing, she tiptoed into the front parlour, where Will’s open coffin rested on trestles. A lamp burned on the dresser. She drew back, her heart racing to see Libby standing by the coffin, scissors clutched in her hand.
(Kaye Kelly, A Secret Mind)
In the introduction to a recent study of New Zealand gothic, Gothic NZ: The Darker Side of Kiwi Culture, Jenny Lawn asked whether “gothic’s intimations of deep time find any place in a former colony whose dominant settler pragmatism privileged realist modes”. On the basis of the three books under review, Deborah Challinor’s Fire, Barbara Else’s Wild Latitudes and Kaye Kelly’s A Secret Mind, the answer is yes, absolutely yes. Popular literature has never been very interested in pragmatism or realism. But whereas, in the past, local historical fiction favoured the romance narrative and the sublime though challenging bush setting, it seems now to have firmly moved to the crime story, the urban and the gothic. Favouring a view of community heavily influenced by our more lugubrious social historians (Pamela Wood’s Dirt: Filth and Decay in a New World Arcadia, for example, or Stevan Eldred-Grigg’s studies of the less salubrious aspects of the past), it is the mean streets of our cities, Dickensian ordure and Seven Dials in Dunedin that are favoured.
Both Else and Kelly place the lunatic asylum at the centre of their unstable, alienated communities, backdating Frame’s use of that institution as a dramatic setting and an unravelling metaphor for what happens to transgressors in a conformist society. In Else’s Wild Latitudes, Godwin’s stay is relatively pleasant under the influence of the benevolent Dr. Turtledove. But behind that façade lurks his Dr Hyde, Dr Howlett, his sidekick the dog-man, and a tale of vanishing babies. “Howlett is a man who never smiles,” says Godwin’s companion Bitty, “an’ that’s the key to knowing he is the devil.” Else, a most self-consciously literary writer, knows her genre and delights in the grotesqueries of her plot. Kelly’s A Secret Mind is a little more literal-minded. Her account of the incarceration of the epileptic Libby is all drool, slops buckets and hideous medical interventions, and in the galloping intensity of her plot she seems to have taken on some of the somewhat blunt terminology of her period: “Anne knew Libby was simple-minded,” thinks one character, “but she had not thought of her as mad. What on earth had happened to cause this terrible deterioration?”
In both novels, the darkness of the asylum spills out into the streets. The gothic of A Secret Mind is exacerbated by its plot mechanisms of addiction, domestic violence and murder. A scene in which the cat Bobby gets its tail cut off in a door is especially graphic – though I’m glad to report that Bobby comes through in the end. In fact, everyone who ought to comes through in the end. This is narrative resolution in the Oscar Wilde sense: “the good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means.” But there is a slight sense throughout of that fatal flaw of historical novel genre, the faint tang of the research library. Characters declaim in period fashion (“[y]ou are a woman of good virtue …. [y]ou wouldn’t have come to my bed without a care for your reputation … I must have acted like an unfeeling brute to persuade you otherwise”), while the action is slowed by cumbersome informational asides (“Mai grabbed her morning cap, a fashion she still clung to when working in the shop despite its waning popularity”). And there is a little too much mechanical characterisation (“Claire, immaculate and eye-catching as ever in a green taffeta”, Tane, “a fine set of white teeth marred only by a gap right at the centre … [t]hough … wearing European dress, his moko, dark skin and jet hair clearly identified him as a Maori”). Not to mention overwriting of the sensations (“His gut burned hotter than an iron and his eyelid skipped in time to his jigging heartbeat”).
Wild Latitudes carries its learning more lightly – in fact it carries everything more lightly, coolly distancing us from taking the gothic of the plot too seriously: “It is a fact of human nature,” Else’s arch narrator tells us, “that what is most horrid is often forgotten the minute the observer has a smart bell topper on his head, or, on hers, a five-shilling bonnet.” The story lays out a deliberately tongue-in-cheek colonial version of Twelfth Night with a concentration on the buffoonery of the sub-plot rather than the sophistication of Olivia and Orsino. As in Twelfth Night, two twins are separated by storm, tempest and all too human machinations. As in Twelfth Night, both twins decide that disguise is their best chance of survival, the boy becoming a simulacrum of his sister, the sister taking on the guise of, variously, a silkie or seal woman, an untouchable whore, and an inadvertent mother. As in Twelfth Night, the reunion of the two is endlessly and teasingly deferred beyond the expectations of realism.
Challinor’s Fire uses a later period setting than Else or Kelly, and its gothic is more elemental though no less horrific:
Behind him, the slowly swinging cable continued to spit sparks, one of which was propelled far enough to land in a bucket filled with used cleaning rags. For a moment there was nothing, then a small “whoomph” as the rags caught and flames shot up into the air. In less than a minute they had jumped gleefully from the bucket up to a shelf holding a tin of varnish, four of naphthalene, five bottles of furniture polish and Jock’s spare packet of Desert Gold.
Based on the 1947 Ballantyne’s department store fire in Christchurch, the plot moves inexorably towards a set-piece description of a conflagration in a fictional Auckland department store, Dunbar and Jones, in 1953, the year of the Queen’s visit. It is difficult to see what is gained from the transposition from fact to faux-history, unless it is a rather leaden sub-plot concerning Ngati Whatua land claims, which sits oddly with the light romance of the stories of the doomed (well, some of them) shop girls which takes up most of the first 242 pages. But then,
[w]hen he reached the bottom of the steps he stepped [sic – does no New Zealand fiction have a copy editor these days?] into the basement and closed the door behind him. Then he stopped, all thoughts of savoury mince gone.
There was something wrong.
Something has indeed gone wrong, and the prose is beginning to sound like Spike Milligan. The
atonality (or is it over-tonality, steps, stepped, stopped, gone and wrong) is not helped by sentences like “Keith Beaumont … was back at his desk by now, his bowels thoroughly emptied but his nerves still in tatters.”
Apart from a wooden ear, the difficulty Challinor has is that her fire is random, not the product of human wickedness, as are most of the plot dynamics in Else and Kelly. The gap between random accident and the lives of her victims seems unfair (apart from emptied but tattered Beaumont who has been fiddling the books), but that is as far as she can go. Else and Kelly, on the other hand, can construct worlds of dark menace run by structures of crime and punishment (in Kelly), or, more disturbingly, deep patterns of gothic disorder (in Else).
Jenny Lawn observes: “to say ‘gothic appears everywhere’ seems somehow smug … perhaps the best way to describe gothic’s location, then, is to say that it could be anywhere.” In local historical fiction it seems to have found a promising home.
Jane Stafford’s Maoriland: New Zealand Literature 1872-1914 (co-written with Mark Williams) was reviewed in our December 2006 issue.