Unpeaceful co-existence, Isa Moynihan

Gate Crasher and Other Stories
Frances Cherry
Earl of Seacliff Art Workshop, $25.00, 
ISBN 186942056X

Flashpoint 
Frances Cherry
Scholastic New Zealand, $16.99, 
ISBN 1869437438

Frances Cherry’s first collection, The Daughter-in-law and Other Stories, was published in 1986, and her first novel, Dancing with Strings, in 1989, a partly autobiographical account of her childhood and her communist parents, in which the main character leaves a difficult marriage and comes out as a lesbian. Similar themes thread through this latest collection.

In Gate Crasher Cherry deploys the professional writer’s skills of unobtrusive exposition, oblique story-telling, authentic-sounding dialogue, attention-grabbing openings (“I was flattered when he took me to bed at this party in Ponsonby”) and vivid, economical scene-setting (“Quite a number of people came back to the house for a cup of tea, sitting in the tidy lounge full of fresh flowers, plastic ones in the rubbish bin.”)

There are 21 stories in about 113 pages of text, the majority told from a woman’s point of view (nearly half in the first person), and varying in length from under two pages to just over the 11 of the title story. The text begins at page 10, having evidently included the title pages, acknowledgements, dedication (two pages of a poem “To my father”), table of contents and two blank pages that probably account for the discrepancy between the page numbers in the table of contents and those in the text. The dedication poem is a moving tribute to her father: “You driving the trams/us bringing cheese and onion sandwiches/tea in a milk carton with a/cardboard lid/down to the corner of Mamari Street”

These details appear again in “Commos’’, together with the theme of being embarrassed as children by their communist parents, especially a mother who was different from her friends’ mothers “in just about every way”. Cherry seems a little less tolerant of the mother than of the open, friendly father. Perhaps the mother was too serious, too intense, shouting at people from her soap box, and, like the mother in Flashpoint, neglecting her commitment to the feeding, comfort and general wellbeing of her family.

Horrible husbands and lousy lovers are familiar territory in women’s writing – not only in New Zealand – but Cherry does explore some of the outer reaches, occupied by such characters as a latent homosexual male and his mate, a possessive mother and her adult daughter, a cross-dresser (who sings “I am woman, I am strong”), a few psychopaths (male and female), a never-forgotten lover who later turns into a (literally) dirty, not quite sane, old man. These stories are brief, well-crafted anecdotes, less satisfying than the more fully developed studies such as “Letter from America”, in which a romantic wartime American sailor lover becomes (after many years) a stout, jowly supporter of President Bush (junior version). In the title story, too, there is a search for times past and, gradually, a discovery of the truth. The manipulative second wife who turns swine into domesticated husbands appears here as she does in Flashpoint.

Since both Flashpoint and Gate Crasher were published in 2006, it’s probably inevitable that some themes and similar characters appear in both, especially that of the woman who becomes strong and independent once freed from the demanding/insensitive/bullying/alcoholic/unfaithful/gay partner. He is variously disposed of by being pushed over a ravine, killed by falling from a scaffold, or simply abandoned because the woman has grown out of him. In “Waiting for Jim”, the wife locks her lecherous, alcoholic husband in their home sauna and goes to a dinner party. Re-titled One Man’s Meat, it was filmed by Chrissie Baker.

No such violence occurs in Flashpoint, a novel for young adults. It is dedicated to one of Cherry’s daughters, and it’s easy to see why it earned Caitlin’s approval: it has natural-sounding dialogue, vivid settings, strong young women and an almost complete lack of sentimentality in both the family and boy-girl relationships – until the closing chapters, that is. There are descriptions of clothes and meals (someone once said that food was the sex of non-adult books) as well as a lively Jack Russell that capers through almost every chapter. When he is killed by a car, it almost brings the family back together, but the mother realises – and accepts – that her marriage is effectively over.

Told in the voice of 16-year-old Charlotte, the clear, strong storyline focuses on her mother’s progress from abandoned wife through alcoholism and rehabilitation to successful, attractive career woman with a new and more fulfilling relationship. Charlotte’s progress follows a similar path, including a phase of relying on alcohol to “dull the pain”. In one episode she disgraces herself just as she accused her mother of doing.

This theme of role-reversal and retribution is strong. Charlotte’s mother was smugly disapproving of April’s mother going out to work, and later Charlotte compares the untidy comfort of April’s home with the more formal – and unloving –  household in which she grew up. Her mother “didn’t seem like a person in the way April’s mother is. When I come to think about it, life at my place used to be like an American sitcom: father coming in, kissing the mother on the cheek and asking what’s for dinner.” In April’s house her father helps with getting dinner – and with washing up. Charlotte remembers how her father left all household “stuff” to her mother and paid someone to look after the garden; “The only time Dad does anything domestic is when there’s a barbecue.” Later, Dad gets his come-uppance when he becomes a house-husband while his second wife continues her career as a lawyer.

Charlotte’s friend April functions mainly as confidante and wise comforter, her family as the easy, casual reality contrasted with the superficial – and fragile – perfection of Charlotte’s. From about Chapter 15 onwards, however, there is a repetition of scenes that labour the portrayal of April as Wise Comforter, and Charlotte as outspoken Miss Manage All, as well as some unconvincing developments such as Claudia’s metamorphosis from home-wrecker who made a play for Charlotte’s father (and deliberately became pregnant) into Charlotte’s mentor helping her with her studies and convincing her that she too can become a successful lawyer.

Charlotte’s mother Judy stops being an alcoholic, is promoted from waitress to maitre d’, and then takes over as accountant (with laptops and spreadsheets) for her builder boyfriend John. He becomes increasingly too good to be true as the novel draws to a close. Not only does he involve himself in worthy causes, helping those “who can’t afford to do things for themselves”, but he also helps Judy with babysitting for her ex-husband’s child, and smiles benignly when she and her ex reminisce about their early days as parents.

Charlotte’s brother, too, the sulky, immature James, grows up, looks after his sister when she drinks too much at a party, and agrees to go to university. Like everyone else, he is swept away in a tide of schmaltz at the sight of his half-sister, Baby Arabella, who gives him “a big smile”, and stares “adoringly” at “huge kindly bear” John as he gives her her bottle. As with most novels for young adults, there’s a message, which seems to be that people can co-exist in harmony if they pull themselves together and don’t indulge in self-pity.

 

Isa Moynihan is a Christchurch writer and fiction editor of Takahe literary magazine.

 

 

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