Canterbury University Press, $29.95,
The Sound of Butterflies
Black Swan, $27.99,
Anne Maria Nicholson
Four debut New Zealand novels which together confirm directions already established in the literature: Weeping Waters joins the ever-growing collection of popular historical novels; The Sound of Butterflies owes nothing to New Zealand other than its author’s heritage; Davey Darling joins the chronicles of the school of hard knocks, which passes as New Zealand childhood; and Politics 101 takes the concerns of a minority group, in this case leftist student politicians in the 1970s, and universalises its experiences.
The group of leftwing student politicians and their hangers-on in Politics 101 seems an historical oddity. But Smith’s lightly ironic touch convinces us that it really was a fascinating time in her characters’ lives. There is Henry, the student politician who admits to having “more women than you can shake a stick at”, and in middle age has moved from left to right, and become unattractively fat; Meg, the dreamy kleptomaniac with a hidden passion and talent for sewing who becomes a well-known craft artist; Diana, the most radical of them all, who in present time becomes part of “virtual space” where it is all happening; and Steph, the artistic one who remains loyal to her straying man for far too long, and finally writes a novel about them all.
Because each tells part of the story there is an interweaving of perceptions. Henry is part of the activist student body, and Diana has come from Sydney to give it some life – Australians considering New Zealand students incapable of doing anything with the right amount of revolutionary fervour. Steph is Henry’s lover, but he is also having an affair with Meg, and sleeps with Diana, who is most of the time a lesbian.
Though each is treated ironically, Smith has preferences, and her ideas are disarmingly old-fashioned and even, in the 21st century, conservative. Her favoured character is Steph, with her cello, her love of literature and her mother at home in Sumner studying theology as a mature student.
Steph and Diana both have epiphanies through interaction with natural objects; Diana, the arch cynic, observes that “transactions between people and their landscapes are the most unfathomable motions”. Steph’s insight is the novel’s theme – what do we learn in Politics 101 but this: “Nature just was …. [I]ts undemanding being had slipped in under the yoke of politics and lodged like a protective covering.” Though interactions with nature stand at the heart of much New Zealand literature, the natural elements in this book are benign, particularly in comparison with the thieving nature of all the humans. The worst nature gets is winter in the Mount Street cemetery, which is hardly Man-Alone country.
While Politics 101 is unmistakably a New Zealand novel, The Sound of Butterflies raises that question we all love to debate: what is New Zealand literature? If a national literature is one in which the writer and the characters are engaged with the country of their origin, then maybe it passes, given Rachael King’s literary pedigree. The non-New Zealand setting gives the novel a wider market.
Despite the acclaim, I found myself irritated by The Sound of Butterflies, and this stems mainly from the resonances it has with other novels, notably Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and The Piano Tuner by Daniel Mason. All three are about obsessions which lead men into wild places: finding Kurtz, tuning a piano, finding a butterfly. What we learn from Conrad is that to do this well, the writer needs to focus on the obsession and present it as normal behaviour. If you do what King does, which is to juxtapose obsessive behaviour with what might be considered normality, the obsession becomes merely peculiar.
Thomas Edgar is searching for a rare butterfly which has asymmetrical colouring: one wing black, the other yellow: “I will hold it in my hands more gently than I would a lover. It will be my key to greatness; more importantly it will belong to me.” He is with three other naturalists whose trip into the Brazilian jungle is funded by enigmatic and evil rubber baron José Santos, who wants their souls for his money.
The further into the jungle they go the more frantic Thomas becomes to find the butterfly and name it after Sophie. He doesn’t find it, and the nearest he gets is seducing Santos’ wife Clara at a carnival to which she has gone disguised as the butterfly. The seduction leads to an affair, which leads Thomas to suspect he has syphilis because Santos does. Although Thomas has much to fear from Santos, he investigates Santos’ treatment of the Indians he uses in the rubber plantations, and the hold the man has over the inhabitants of the city of Manaus that he has built in the jungle. What he discovers renders him speechless, so that when he escapes Santos’ thrall and returns to England he will not communicate with his wife.
Thomas is only released from this affliction when Sophie burns the butterflies he has brought back to sell. Then he can tell her the whole terrible story. Eight years later Thomas is happily off in the Malay Archipelago looking for more butterflies, and Sophie is home with their children. I found this ending disappointing; is this what happens to people who have a grand and all-consuming obsession? Thomas is still adventuring but it is a job, not a passion that is driving him.
Davey Darling has been compared to Ian Cross’s The God Boy, Maurice Gee’s In My Father’s Den and Ronald Hugh Morrieson’s fiction, and acclaimed as the novel of white trash in the way that Once Were Warriors revealed the underbelly of Maori society. These are large claims, and given how much I like Cross, Gee and Morrieson (you don’t like Once were Warriors, but I appreciate what it is), I was looking forward to reading this book. I hated it, not because of its subject-matter but because of the way Paul Shannon has used the material.
The brilliance of The God Boy comes from the double perception at work: of Jimmy Sullivan telling a story he hardly understands but that adult readers see for its true awfulness. Davey Ardsley tells the story of his family directly, there is no child/adult perception here, so that the in-your-face violence, drinking and swearing amongst a group of truly unsavoury characters has no other perspective.
Nothing redeems Davey’s father, a fat boozing oaf of a man who eventually – and thank goodness, because then the book can end – drops dead chasing Davey around a motel room. To compare this with Morrieson is to misunderstand the Gothic fiction of which he was a master. Reading him, we suspend disbelief, for the duration accepting that the world really is as peculiar and exaggerated as he presents it. That never happens in Davey Darling. It is all too depressingly the stuff of Sunday papers: the drunken father handing out random beatings to wife and son, setting fire to the property they move to in Timaru, the lack of money resulting from the boozing, the wife’s ineffectual attempts to keep the marriage and the boy on track, the minimal housing.
There is nothing wrong with taking the stuff of journalism and turning it into literature but it needs to be filtered through the imagination, given some understanding. This book could have done with a good editorial hand, focusing the material on particular points.
Good historical novels never go out of fashion, and there are almost endless topics for the enterprising novelist. Surprisingly, no one has yet used the Tangiwai disaster, and so Anne Maria Nicholson with Weeping Waters has the subject wide open. It’s a good novel for a journey (not one by train!) because Nicholson has a journalist’s facility with words, and the story doesn’t falter.
Frances Nelson, a vulcanologist from America, comes to New Zealand to work on ways of predicting volcanic activity on Mt Ruapehu. Her parents lived in New Zealand but left after the Tangiwai disaster in which their baby daughter was killed. Frances has grown up in the shadow of this death, and so part of her trip is to try to understand what happened to her sister, and, through this, lay the shadow to rest.
The novel has several strands: Frances’ search for people who were involved with the tragedy; the increasing danger on Mt Ruapehu, which does eventually erupt; the conflict between those, like Frances, who want to set in place an effective eruption warning system, and those, particularly business people, who want to bulldoze the Crater Lake and thus relieve the pressure at the volcano’s core; and Frances’ developing relationship with a local Maori man. Alongside this Nicholson includes factual accounts from interviewees who were involved in the Tangiwai tragedy. Several of these stories could have been novels in themselves, and there is a slightly unsatisfactory feeling of none of them being fully enough developed.
The novel seems rather dated: I once read all the romantic fiction written in New Zealand, and this novel has many similarities to that published in the 1950s: the exotic outsider Frances, haunted by her sister, and escaping a damaging love affair at home, the beautiful Maori man presented here as another exotic, the complications of his ex-wife wanting to come back, her ex-lover wanting her back, her co-worker wanting her, the unusual and dangerous location.
Nicholson’s analysis of Maori culture is a little more sophisticated than that of earlier writers, but it is a long time since I have read a New Zealand novel where, for example, Maori attitudes to death are held up without examination as being superior to those of the Pakeha, and a tangi is described as a kind of tourist artefact. The factual accounts sit uneasily inside the story, and I wondered if, having done the interviews, Nicholson was unsure how to use them, but knew she had interesting and valuable material.
Heather Roberts teaches New Zealand literature to Foundation Studies students (international) at Victoria University of Wellington.