The Crocus Hour
Penguin Books, $28.00,
Whatever criticism you make of Charlotte Randall’s novels, you cannot say that she has no sense of place. In The Crocus Hour, as in her four earlier novels, she ventures into precise physical description of a sort that few novelists attempt nowadays.
There are, after all, plenty of places for her to describe. Arid Crete, too hot in summer, too cold in winter, defiled by hippie tourists, while locals scratch a living, observe their narrow traditions or see how they can exploit visitors. The wild parts of the South Island of New Zealand, where dark mountains hang over and control the outlook of people choosing to live there. And quite late in the novel, an extended sketch of drab, curtain-twitching suburban Dunedin in the 1960s, to which the author attaches a really timely warning against glibly judging the customs and social arrangements of the past. The historian in me murmured “Amen!” to Randall’s mature wisdom here – or rather the mature wisdom of one of her narrators. The reader in me felt bucked up that the novel hadn’t gone entirely flat, which it seemed to be doing in its wandering middle sections.
For after all the undoubted skill of Randall’s descriptions, there’s the uneasy sense that The Crocus Hour doesn’t hang together, lacks a centre and is really made up of three separate situations, only loosely tied by narrative.
Situation one. The unnamed male narrator meets Henry Davis on Crete in the early 1980s. Henry, a widower, is in quest of his missing daughter Sally who disappeared while holidaying with her friend Jane. Jane herself can tell them nothing about the disappearance, and is contemptuous of their search. They hunt. They speculate. Of course some of their speculation is lurid and scarey. What do you expect when a girl goes missing in foreign parts? Situation two. The narrator periodically joins Henry in the South Island. Henry is a gardener and a herbalist – interests that found their way into Randall’s earlier novels. There could have been something fishy about how Henry’s wife died. There was certainly something aggressive in the way Henry felt about the “alternative” therapist who treated her. Situation three. Jane and her backstory, which brings in a note of melancholy-madness.
Do we ever find out what specifically (if anything) happened to Sally or to Henry’s wife? Reviewers are quite justifiably shot for revealing things like that, and I have no desire to be shot. But I do note that the blurb blows the gaff somewhat by making clear that this is not a conventional mystery story, despite the initial missing-girl premise. The blurb says Henry “has to confront the painful possibility that Sally herself may have planned a deliberate flight from a too-protective father”. Yes, in the stories of both Jane and Sally there are hints at a theme of imperfect fathers thwarting independent daughters. And yet (further evidence of Randall’s perspicacity) there’s also evidence that flight from a boring or otherwise limited family life can also mean a leap into something infinitely worse. Frying pan to fire.
It is hard to miss the novel’s strokes of symbolism and literary allusion. Crete and Greece give us the Minotaur in his labyrinth (the dark secret in hidden places) and Ulysses (the restless world-wanderer) and Persephone dragged by Hades from a crocus bed (the child forcibly parted from a parent). All are relevant to the characters and their situations. With the South Island it’s allusions to Samuel Butler and his Mesopotamia and Erewhon, being the will to create a mythology about another country, and the disappearance into nowhere. Death the Grim Reaper comes into some conversations, usually just called “Grim”.
I appreciate Randall’s early warning – on the third page of text, to be precise – that this is a novel about perception rather than discovery. As Henry and his nameless companion venture into Crete, the narrator tells us:
The sky darkened and it became that time of evening when you can’t always make out what is in front of you – is that a goat or a rock or simply a clump of grass grown lush and tall in the spring rains?
Does Henry see what he thinks he is seeing in his search for his daughter? Does the narrator? Do we?
Which brings me to the most unsatisfactory element of the novel. One of the great clichés in current lit crit is the concept of the unreliable narrator. The problem here is that Randall’s main narrator is not so much unreliable as insubstantial. Who exactly is he, and why has he been created to filter this disjointed story? We learn precious little about him. At one point we’re told that his parents were English-speakers but he was brought up in France. Henry says this accounts for the narrator’s stilted way of expressing himself. At another point we learn that the narrator’s father has died. And there are one or two references to his having a well-paid “quite senior position”. But that’s about it.
The narrator is a cipher or a mystery, depending on your taste. In one broadcast interview, Randall said she deliberately made him a “nobody” so that our attention would not be focused on him. Unfortunately, he’s there on most pages and he can’t be ignored. More than anything, he reminded me of those evasive narrators in homosexual-themed novels, way back in the days when they had to be written in code and only an initiated circle of readers could work out what was really being said (the narrators in Christopher Isherwood’s Mr Norris Changes Trains or Brigid Brophy’s The King of a Rainy Country, for example). Quite clearly, from elements of the plot that I carefully haven’t mentioned, Randall was not implying any sort of homosexual attraction between the narrator and Henry. But we’re still forced to ask why this insubstantial person is hanging out with Henry in the first place. What is his interest in somebody who, if truth be told, hardly holds our own attention?
Given the nature of Henry’s obsessions and his patronising manner of speech, it’s hard to see why the narrator or anybody else would seek out his company over a number of years. There is also the disparity between patronising, judgemental Henry as reported by the narrator, and more thoughtful Henry when he himself takes over narration. Similarly, the narrator’s version of Jane is an abrupt, defensive, unsentimental young woman, whereas the Jane who speaks for herself is mature and more-or-less forgiving.
Oh dear. We are back to “unreliable narrator” territory again. The twists of the labyrinth must be intentional, but I can’t stifle the sense that something is being wilfully held back from us simply because it suits the author to hold it back. In evoking place, setting up situations, casting dialogue, even pointing a moral, Randall rates with the best. Page for page, her prose here is as sharp and evocative as it was in The Curative and What Happen Then, Mr Bones? Her forceful rejection of the old “counter-culture” can only be applauded. But in this case the mystery of her labyrinth appears to be only that it has nothing at its centre.
Nicholas Reid is an Auckland historian and reviewer.