Confessions of an historical romance virgin, Beryl Fletcher

The Paua Tower
Coral Atkinson
Black Swan, $27.99,
ISBN 1869417623

The Sawdust Makers
Jackie Fraser
Hazard Press, $34.99,
ISBN 187739307X

Kitty 
Deborah Challinor
HarperCollins, $34.99
ISBN 1869506014

First, a confession: I’m an historical romance virgin. This is either a good thing, in that I can take a fresh unbiased approach to these three novels, or a bad thing, in that after reading them I’m still sitting firmly on my literary high horse. Blame my snobbery on the working-class household of my youth, where getting “books” from the dairy meant picking up copies of Best Bets, Truth and the Woman’s Weekly. I took great delight in distancing myself from these popular works and would carry copies of classic novels around, pretending to understand Bleak House and Ulysses while all the time secretly dipping into my sister’s copies of that wonderfully decadent teen magazine of the 50s, True Confessions.

I have not read any works by these writers before, although I note Deborah Challinor has made the bestseller lists with some of her earlier novels. “Serious” writers are sometimes demoralised by the fact that popular genre writers earn supposedly vast sums of money and literary fiction most often does not. I have always found this to be spurious. In any case, Big Macs make huge profits but that doesn’t make them superior to other forms of food.

Historical fiction has an interesting track record, but it was when the classification of Romantic was applied to writers from Sir Walter Scott onwards that a division between “serious” fiction and historical romance became more clearly defined. I asked some of my writer friends how they differentiated between literary and so-called light fiction. One woman said, “It’s easy. You pay a fee at the public library for popular fiction and get the worthy books for free.” She claimed that when she published her first novel, she hightailed it down to her nearest library to see if her book was in the paid section. She was rather annoyed that it was not.

The Paua Tower is Coral Atkinson’s second novel, and she follows the dictates of genre writing in making this one plot-driven, and basing its characters on stereotypes. In spite of this, I found much to admire. The description of a small New Zealand town in the 1930s is evocative and authentic, and Atkinson does not fall into the trap of allowing her extensive research into the period to override the story.

Much of the complicated plot hinges on relationships between Pakeha men and women of the time, and this is where Atkinson shines. We meet Roland, the vicar who is agonising over his lust for a racy French woman who has landed up in this provincial hell at the bottom of the world. We meet Vic Cowan, the earnest young communist from a local work camp who falls in love with Stella, the innocent young girl from a poverty-stricken household.

The book has an uneven style that veers between the banal and the innovative. Sometimes the author adopts a coy tone which had me squirming, but some of the writing is nothing short of brilliant. The rape scene involving Stella and wealthy town rotter Jim Maguire is one of the most powerful I have read. Atkinson has not imposed a modern sensibility onto her women characters. They are incredibly naive about sex, and beguiled by superficial notions of romantic love, and that’s exactly right for the period. Atkinson can construct a tight narrative, and in the second half of the book her characters make changes in their lives that are, for the most part, plausible to the reader.

The Sawdust Makers is by first-time novelist Jackie Fraser. It is set in 1938 in a privately owned King Country sawmill. Sarah, a young English girl, arrives at the mill to live with her New Zealand cousins. Her parents have sent her there to get her away from the uncertainties of the political situation in Europe. She finds life in the bush very different from her previous experience and, to add to her difficulties, the dynamics of her new family are at first a little mysterious. She has, for example, to share a bedroom in the bush shack with Hine, an elderly Maori woman.

This is a gentle book and anyone looking for a racy read is going to be disappointed. It contains one kiss, between Sarah and Hine’s son Tipene, a chaste affair that automatically leads to the announcement of their engagement. So far, so Jane Austen. Much of the first part works through Sarah’s ignorance of the history of New Zealand, and Hine is one of her main educators. Herein lies the main problem for a reader: there is far too much talk and too little action. Another problem is the thinness of the plot. Not a lot happens to Sarah, who sometimes comes across as a right little goody-two-shoes.

I wanted to like this book because Fraser is great at creating atmosphere. At its heart is a wonderful portrait of a quintessentially New Zealand pioneer community lost and gone forever, along with the native trees so recklessly felled (albeit by hard-working and well-meaning people), and this portrait mitigates to some extent its problems of technique.

Kitty is Deborah Challinor’s fifth novel, and in it we experience historical romance writing at its best. The plot is complicated: suffice to say it begins with the banishment of Kitty to New Zealand in 1838 for blotting her reputation when caught kissing a notorious rake. She ends up living with her missionary uncle and his submissive wife in the Bay of Islands. From this inauspicious beginning, Kitty turns into a brave and autonomous woman and has many adventures, including witnessing the great chief Hone Heke at the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi.

I read the book at one sitting, an unusual event for me, a self-confessed jaded reader. When I came to the final page where, in true historical romance style, the heroine discovers that she loves the hero (an Irish-speaking sea captain) after all, I wanted more.

Challinor is extraordinarily talented. She knows her early New Zealand history well but she never puts this at the centre of her narrative. Her characters do not come across as mere ciphers but as real living people. At the core of her work is a thoughtful analysis of the relationships between missionaries, settlers and Maori. There are no goodies and baddies in this book, just people bumbling along within a particular historical moment. In spite of sometimes horrific events, there is tenderness and care in her characterisation, and this is a difficult feat to pull off without descending into sentimentality and melodrama. I enjoyed this book, both for the expertise of the writer and for the thrill of good fiction set in earlier days in my homeland. Beats hands down the imported stories I read as a teenager in True Confessions.

 

Hamilton novelist Beryl Fletcher was awarded the 2006 Randell Cottage WritersResidency in Wellington.

 

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