Black Earth White Bones
Random House, $27.99,
Overdue New Releases
Longacre Press, $29.99,
Apart from the fact that all four of these novels are by male authors, their only other obvious link is the number of incidents involving the consumption of large quantities of alcohol, with some, and sometimes all, of the attendant consequences: dodgy sex; fights; hangovers. The one in which alcohol consumption is moderate is Chris Baker’s unsettling depiction of a post-pandemic New Zealand, Shadow Waters. The alcohol consumed in this novel is mostly of the homebrew variety, the violence fuelled not by drinking but by fear.
Since the settings of all four are more or less contemporary (Shadow Waters is presumably set in the near future), they are also likely to yield clues as to the state of New Zealand in the first decade of the 21st century. Reading them in a room 12,000 miles from my Wellington home, though, I’m left with the impression of a fragmented people, engaged in widely different ways of living.
In Shadow Waters, a novel I had difficulty believing in, the author has a lot to say about the tangata whenua, and their relationship to the land. Chris Else’s Black Earth White Bones is set on Ventiak, an imaginary Pacific island, but the New Zealand of his protagonist’s dysfunctional family is never very far away. In Matt Johnson’s Overdue New Releases, a world as well as an ocean away from Ventiak, a young man struggles with feelings of alienation, as he tries to put his life back together in Dunedin. Julian Novitz’s Holocaust Tours takes in a wide range of locations – England Scotland, the United States, Israel, Poland – but the defining location is Wellington, where a number of 30-something men and women drift in and out of each other’s lives.
Different worlds, different lives, but what struck me was that each novel worked best when the story was advanced glancingly, as it were, using the poetic devices of suggestion and metaphor. Where a conventional linear narrative was followed, without recourse to the kind of language that allows for more than one interpretation, there was a danger of boredom setting in.
One question I found myself asking as I read was in what ways these novels differ from, say, four contemporary British novels written by men. I came to the conclusion that there were too many answers to this question, but the ones that seemed to me most pertinent concerned the use of language and the delineation of character. That the language of all four suffers from a certain flatness is perhaps inevitable, given that the writers concerned are all trying to reflect the “voice” of their mostly Kiwi characters. But I did long for more variation in dialogue, and for less accumulation of detail, a tendency common to all four novels, resulting in the clogging up of much of the prose.
As for the characters, with the exception of Else’s delightful protagonist, the dentally challenged, ageing poet Kit Wallace, none of them really got under my skin. In some cases, most notably in Baker’s brave attempt at a post-apocalyptic novel, the people seemed two-dimensional. Things happen to them – in Shadow Waters the things that happen demand repeated suspension of disbelief – but the characters stay the same.
This is less true of the mostly young characters in Holocaust Tours, but apart from the vividly realised Lewis Ravington, failed publisher, hopeless lover and intermittent drunk, the people encountered in the course of the story remain shadowy. This is partly due to the many points of view adopted by the author, a technique that allows the story to unfold intriguingly, but at the cost of a loss of focus. I wanted to know more about Daniel, the novel’s reluctant hero. The author tells me a lot about what Daniel thought, but I wanted to know more about how he felt. Above all I wanted to know in what ways the experiences he goes through change him.
All four of these novels would have benefited from judicious editing – from the application of the principle “less is more”. The most skilfully written, Black Earth White Bones, suffers from too many bit-part players, and an annoying tendency to address the reader directly. Phrases like “All you really need to know”, and “We are just going to have to live with this” litter the pages, distancing the reader from the story and lessening the tension. Jane Austen would never have got away with her authorial intrusions if she’d used them so freely.
But comparisons are odious. In the end each novel has to stand on its own.
I had the most trouble with Baker’s Shadow Waters. My problem was not with the supernatural elements in the story – the appearance of kehua, or spirits, the ordeals by drowning, the shape-shifting ponaturi who eat people’s souls – but with the language. To tell such a dramatic story, the writer must find a language which will fuse with the experience in such a way as to make it seem no other words could have been chosen. Only a language free from cliché, vivid enough to conjure up all the elements, natural and supernatural, of the author’s vision, will convince the reader that what she is reading is not just possible but truthful.
Sadly this does not happen. A sexual encounter early in the book is described in these words: “she wrapped her legs around him, writhed and wriggled till she melted into his embrace and filled his senses with her sweet-smelling velvet softness.” There are too many such passages, and too many rhetorical questions – “Something must have happened, but what?”; “What was going to happen?” – intended to heighten tension, but having the opposite effect, at least on this reader.
Much more interesting linguistically is Johnson’s Overdue New Releases. But I have to admit to a prejudice here. Novels employing the language of video games, reality TV shows, pop music and cult movies leave me cold. I did admire the author’s skill in fusing the virtual with the real, but I found my eyes glazing over as I struggled through paragraphs dense with references to movies I’d never seen, TV shows I’d never watched and music I’d never listened to. When I did manage to focus on the travails of Mark Penny, former high-flyer, now a video store operator, I found myself enjoying the story, and liking its protagonist, a curiously sympathetic “loner”, with a nice line in self-mockery, and a kindly view of damaged humanity.
Novitz’s Holocaust Tours is in many ways the most challenging of the four novels. Part of its difficulty lies in the fact that it tries to do too much. At the heart of the story is a meditation on memory: what it means to the individual and to society. The question the novel asks is, what form do memories of the Holocaust take and how have these memories changed or distorted the original event?
But Novitz has also chosen to write a thriller, based, I suspect, on the controversy surrounding the publication in the 90s of a Waikato University thesis that was seen by many as part of a growing body of work denying the Holocaust. So since this thoughtful and thought-provoking novel is also a thriller, there have to be villains, albeit misguided ones, who manipulate a less villainous but no less misguided author and his publisher into bringing out a work innocently titled Body Disposal at Auschwitz – An Inquiry into Mortality Rates and Crematory Procedures at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Camps.
Mixed in with the thriller elements is a rather pallid love story, plus, since this is first and foremost a novel about memory, a quest for identity. Is calling yourself half-Jewish a statement of identity or a cop-out? The fact that this question isn’t satisfactorily answered left me disappointed. In the end Daniel walks away from the problem, as he walks away from the snow-covered ruins of Birkenau.
Finally there is Else’s accomplished Black Earth White Bones. It is perhaps unfortunate that it has come out in the same year as Lloyd Jones’s superb Mr Pip, also set on a Pacific island, with which it will inevitably be compared. Mr Pip takes place in real time in the middle of real events – the struggle of the people of Bougainville to secure their independence from New Guinea.
The setting of Else’s novel is fictional, but the underlying events are real enough. The destruction of the environment through phosphate mining, and the shadow of corruption and exploitation hanging over the island are evidence of forces only marginally less menacing than the machete-wielding soldiers of Jones’s novel. Else’s description of The Rage, a plague of ants which periodically descends on the town, driving the terrified inhabitants indoors, is the high point of the novel, working as it does on both thematic and plot levels.
I had no trouble believing in the world Else conjures up, though there were times when I wished for a glossary to help with the language spoken by his fictional islanders. And though there are flat passages, there are more than enough colourful turns of phrase to compensate. I particularly liked his description of his protagonist as a man with a “mouth like a wrecked cemetery”. And who could forget “eyebrows like stage machinery – you can almost hear the squeal of the pulleys as they move around.”
To sum up the effect of these four very different novels, it seems to me there is a danger that in the very laudable aim, shared by most New Zealand publishers and reviewers, of avoiding elitism, we may have lost sight of the best things a novel can do. It can illuminate character, expand our sympathies, increase our understanding and engage our hearts. But it can only do this when language and experience merge in such a way as to make a seamless whole. There are moments in these novels when that happens, but moments are not enough.
If it is true that there are only four stories – or is it seven? – in the world, and every novel written is a re-telling of one or other of them, then it’s the language that must distinguish each new telling. Language alone will set it apart from its predecessors, and persuade the reader the story she is reading is being told for the very first time.
Elspeth Sandys is a novelist and playwright, who now lives in Wellington.