A damn good shake up, Beryl Fletcher

Caging Skies
Christine Leunens
Vintage, $27.99,
ISBN 9781869419578

Remember Me
Derek Hansen
HarperCollins, $34.99,
ISBN 9780732287160

Miss Me a Lot Of
Louise Wareham Leonard
Victoria University Press, $30.00,
ISBN 9780864735553

In New Zealand Books Autumn 2008, Elizabeth Caffin writes that fiction in New Zealand over the past 30 years has matured and broadened to such an extent that all genres and audiences are now catered for, but that, in spite of this, writing and publishing novels remain fraught with risk. The books under review are written by three risk-takers who, for various reasons, illustrate the fluidity of place and theme and style that is now taking hold of the New Zealand literary novel and giving it a damn good shake up.

Without getting into that tiresome argument of whether books set outside New Zealand are foreign books, or defining books written by newly-arrived upstarts as non-local, let me say that these three writers are New Zealand writers by residence, kinship and choice, and I for one am pleased we can claim them as such.

Christine Leunens, a recent migrant, takes multiple risks with her second novel, Caging Skies. This book is wild, out of control; it thumbs its nose at those who look for balanced structure and subdued symbolism. Not only does Leunens break every narrative rule in the creative writing text book, she forces the reader to suspend disbelief in a tale told through the eyes of a deeply unpleasant and unreliable protagonist. In spite of this, or maybe because of it, the result is a disturbing and gripping novel that has haunted me ever since I finished reading it.

The book is set in Vienna, and begins with the narrator Johannes looking back on his life in order to make sense of what happened to him during his youth before and after WWII. The theme and philosophic tone of the story is set from the very first paragraph: “The great danger of lying is not that lies are untruths, and thus unreal, but that they become real in other people’s minds. They escape the liar’s grip like seeds let loose in the wind.”

Johannes was born in 1927. He becomes involved with the racist propaganda of 1930s Vienna and joins the Hitler Youth movement. After the annexation of Austria into the Third Reich, he discovers by chance that his deeply anti-Nazi parents have hidden a Jewish girl Elsa behind a false wall in their house. His initial shock turns into attraction, which quickly turns into a total obsession with Elsa that will last for decades. His parents die, leaving Johannes the only person who knows Elsa is in the house. He becomes drunk with power over his captive puppet. His ailing grandmother dies, leaving Johannes completely alone with his secret tenant. He cannot bear the thought of losing her when the war ends and takes extreme measures to make sure she never finds out that the Allies have won the war. She believes the Nazis reign supreme across Europe. Eventually, Johannes becomes the virtual prisoner of Elsa, the victim of his own obsession, and lives a tortuous and desultory life.

There are elements of political allegory in this work, which reminded me at times of The Tin Drum by Günter Grass. Its style is that of confessional memoir, and it is written exclusively from the point of view of Johannes. This was a wise choice. If Leunens had chosen to tell the story from a third-person perspective or from multiple points of view, it would have lost much of its psychological power.

For those readers who might find the plot totally unbelievable … I was halfway through the book when news broke about the sensational case in Austria where Josef Fritzl imprisoned his daughter in an underground windowless cellar for over two decades and forced her to have seven children through repeated rapes. His wife, who lived in a house above the cellar, knew nothing about it. Life, as usual, trumps art.

Derek Hansen has published three collections of short stories and eight novels, including the bestselling novel Sole Survivor. Hansen declares from the start that his new novel Remember Me “straddles the line between truth and fiction and occasionally trips over onto one or other side”. I am pleased that he stated this at the outset, otherwise I would have sworn the book was pure memoir, and that everything that happens in it is true. This is because he paints such an authentic picture of 1950s Ponsonby through the eyes of his main character, a 12-year-old migrant boy from England. I lived through this era in Auckland, and he gets everything so right, especially for boys whose lives at that time were quite different to those led by girls.

The (unnamed) boy soon learns what it’s like to be different:

My father’s accent was the killer… His ‘thees’ and ‘thys’ were bad enough [but] one school social night he obliged by singing ‘On Ilkla Moor Baht ’At’ to a bemused audience of Kiwis, Samoans and Maoris. If it was possible to die from embarrassment I would’ve.


He soon makes friends and joins a group who ride their bikes all over town, breaking all the rules of conduct they are supposed to obey. These boys come from predominantly working-class families and it is fascinating to see how much their lives differ from modern boys’. They have a secret life their parents know little about. They are constantly beaten by parents, teachers and other boys for trivial transgressions but do not change their behaviour. They play endless war games, including bombing the hell out of Dresden from the safety of an old sofa. They are obsessed with war heroes. They particularly like the idea of meeting, or becoming, the commander of a German U-boat.

This novel is plot-driven, and I don’t want to reveal the machinations of the story. Suffice to say that the migrant boy uncovers a wartime secret that turns the whole community against him, a terrifying experience at any age. The writing is concise, sometimes funny, and the characters are very well drawn. Although this novel is different in style and content from Caging Skies, they share a preoccupation with the tensions that can arise when community morality is undermined by the actions of one individual.

Louise Wareham Leonard’s first novel Since You Asked won a prestigious literary award and critical acclaim. Her new novel, Miss Me a Lot Of, addresses a similar theme: the illusion that wealth and social success automatically lead to joy and fulfilment.

Holly Barin is the only child of highly successful investment banker Nick Barin and his New Zealand-born wife Marie. They live in America in a luxurious house. Nick is a womaniser and spends most of his time indulging in short conversations with clients and secretaries on his mobile phone, while Marie decorates and re-decorates their home and brainwashes her young daughter on the perfidious nature of the male. Marie was born in New Zealand and was determined to escape living a life in a low-class backwater that was “too far away from everything”.

The Barins become involved with a family who have recently moved into their district. G and his wife Pia have three teenage daughters, one of whom, Elsa, is befriended by Holly. Elsa, aged 14, gets a crush on Holly’s father and is devastated when she discovers her mother Pia having sex with him.

In the second half of the book Holly is grown up and living alone in New York. She is determined to free herself from the financial power and emotional blackmail that her parents have inflicted upon her. She has trained as a dancer but has never achieved the ambitions her father had for her. Holly finds it difficult to trust men, and, even though she attracts constant male attention because of her beauty, she cannot find a lover who is interested in more than sex.

This brief plot outline might give an impression that this fine novel is centred on the ubiquitous chick-lit character, the “poor little rich girl”. Nothing could be further from the truth. Leonard’s style is spare and lyrical, and her extensive use of dialogue to create character and develop the plot is stunning.

Holly comes across as a complex and thoroughly modern character. She becomes a shrewd observer of the secretive and manipulative gender wars in contemporary marriage, but in the end she makes a relationship with a wealthy man who is not so very different from those of her parents’ generation. This is not a failure of nerve on Holly’s part. It illustrates, in my view, the power of middle-class culture over a beautiful young woman who has tried to live outside the rules and ended up living a life of quiet despair.

Beryl Fletcher is currentlywriting her seventh book. 


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