Risky enterprises, Elizabeth Caffin

Ripples on the Lake
Dawn Rotorangi
HarperCollins, $26.99,
ISBN 13978869506391

Cutting Caleb Keys
Glenn Bowden
Penguin Books, $28.00,
ISBN 9780143006008

Rocking Horse Road
Carl Nixon
Vintage, $27.99,
ISBN 9781969419073

The Blue
Mary McCallum
Penguin Books, $28.00,
ISBN 9780143007234

In the last 30 years New Zealand fiction has grown and matured. There are more books, they attract public attention, novelists have become stars, and new writers emerge each year from creative writing courses. There are different types of novels for different audiences, and the popular novel is now well established. Novelists write with greater confidence and ease, under far less pressure to be nationalistic or narrowly literary, more sure of readers and of their craft. But for all that, publishing novels remains a risky enterprise and the most risky enterprise of all is a first novel.

Of these four, three have specific local settings realised with varying degrees of success, and one is set in India. Two, written by men, are coming-of-age novels with male first-person narrators; two with female authors have a woman as the central, though not exclusive, consciousness.  Three focus on a search or journey in which the ostensible object turns out to be less important than the self-discovery reached. In all these novels, the past lives on into the present, disturbing and disrupting until it is mastered and understood. Endings are not easily achieved and may not satisfy.

Everything about the way Ripples on the Lake is presented – title, cover image, nail-biting teaser, price – suggests it is directed at a popular audience. The opening paragraph, which introduces a heroine called Saffron with “wind-sculpted features” on a “deserted darkened pavement”, seems to confirm this. As the narrative unfolds, sensation is piled upon sensation, violent deaths, ghostly appearances, a frantic chase. It relies too much on over-wrought language and vivid images of blood and destruction.

Though Saffron is Pakeha, like the author, the book is based on the Maori belief in a spiritual world with powerful laws and obligations and the continuing presence of the ancestors. The careless infringement of tapu (in an act which would be seen as theft in a Pakeha context) by her brother Billy leads to a series of disasters which can only cease when recompense is paid. Guided by a mysterious kuia, Saffron must recover the bones of some long-dead babies, which, after trials and tribulations, she finally does. Nick, a press photographer, with his own ghosts, is an obligatory romantic addition to the plot.

The characterisation is thin, and the setting, Taupo, in spite of much mention of water and mountains, is not a convincing or moving presence. This simplistic use of Maori material for easy melodrama and cheap suspense is disappointing. One can only recall the restraint and emotional integrity with which a wise and talented writer like Patricia Grace works in this territory.

A lack of experience shows also in Cutting Caleb Keys by Glenn Bowden. A thinly disguised and laddish travelogue, it follows Ollie’s search in India for his friend Caleb, at the behest and expense of his anxious mother. Escaping also from a messed-up love affair with Jude, he ambles round the sub-continent without too much urgency, and enjoying the local colour and especially the booze, sex, drugs and Indian eccentrics he meets along the way. Eventually he finds Caleb – and Jude – and deals to Caleb in a particularly graphic way.

If this last comment seems to confuse author and narrator, I think this is what happens in the novel. The adventures probably draw heavily on the author’s own and, though the jaunty, smart-alecky, amoral voice is meant to be funny and seen ironically, the tone is not sure and easily becomes irritating. Gestures toward serious meaning, which sometimes involve the Bhagavad Gita, are particularly confused. Much of the language, for example about the European girls who drift in and out, is deliberately indulgent and you have the awful feeling that authorial distance has diminished. If the novel is intended as a mocking parody of the (western) journey for (eastern) enlightenment, it fails to convince. If it is just good fun, I am clearly not the target audience.

Carl Nixon is a much more experienced and more thoughtful writer. This, too, is a first novel but he has written for the stage and published a successful collection of short stories, Fish ’n’ Chip Shop Song. It is one of the stories in that book (with the same title) which is here transformed into the novel form, not an easy task. Wisely, he sticks very closely to his original but he is able to enrich and develop it. This is partly because of the shape of the story. The book is constructed like a thriller, beginning with the discovery of a body, and offering, as it proceeds, several possible murder suspects. As each of these is patiently discounted, suspense mounts until finally the urgency of the search evaporates, no conclusive villain is established (though, as an addition to the short story, one possibility remains), and the journey is seen to be about something else entirely.

Just as carefully and scrupulously constructed is the narrator’s voice and perspective and the context of his experience. A man in his 40s looks back on an event, an obsession, of his teenage years, recalling not only what happened but also what he was. The expansiveness of the novel allows Nixon to build up a more complex picture of that past existence and of the workings of the passage of time.

Early one morning in December 1980, Pete Marshall finds the naked body of Lucy Asher lying on New Brighton beach. From that point, he and his bunch of friends, one of whom tells the story, are obsessed with how and why she died, undertaking their own investigations and collecting vast amounts of “significant” material in a dedicated “lock-up”.  They track down one suspect after another until the discovery of Lucy’s clandestine relationship with a teacher and a cache of pornographic photos leads to a dramatic and frightening confrontation – and yet another dead end.

The powerful but barely understood or articulated forces driving this quest are conveyed with great sensitivity and perceptiveness. While there is a prurient curiosity about a sexual motive for the killing, there is also a profound sorrow for the loss of something beautiful. There is a strange but authentic sense that this group of red-blooded teenage boys identify with the murderer, but at the same time grieve for the rest of their lives for an innocence that is gone forever (“our first true love and, in some sense, our last”), as broken marriages and death from cancer darken their adult experience. This unerring sketch of young male group psychology is impressive and in this respect Nixon is only matched by Owen Marshall among our contemporary writers.

Integral to the power of the novel is the setting, the long thin road between ocean and estuary, the beach and the dunes, the small community isolated but part of the city, with its dairy, school, policeman. Nixon’s use of sand, sea, summer recall Bruce Mason’s iconic monologue, another tale of innocence lost. Wild uncontrollable forces of nature, seen for example in a ferocious storm, counterpoint the gossipy suspicious village atmosphere and reflect the events and emotions uncovered. The period too is a time of visceral social conflict, of the 1981 Springbok tour, when darker divisions, normally hidden, emerge in anger and incomprehension, a national blooding when all accepted certainties are threatened and damaged.

It is the atmosphere of this novel that remains with you, images and feelings rather than characters and plot, a haunting effect not easy to achieve or to describe. It is just a pity there are so many errors in the paging and editing of the text. For example, the teacher SJ who becomes a suspect could not possibly have killed Lucy Asher, or taken photographs of her, because he did not arrive in the community, we are told, until early 1981 after she was dead. I noted four different places where text has been repeated or dropped. I hope the publisher arranges the reprint the novel deserves.

The Blue, as its title suggests, is another story of hopes, ideals, dreams and the necessary accommodations that experience brings. It too harbours a mystery but here the search and discovery is ours, as Mary McCallum, a gifted and wise writer, gradually expands our understanding of her characters and their relationships. The blue is also a whale of course and the most immediately brilliant aspect of this novel is the superbly researched and realised context, the small whaling community on Arapawa Island in the Marlborough Sounds in the late 1930s. Learning about the whale hunt, how the whale is captured, killed, processed, even if rather grisly procedures, is fascinating but she gives us also a vocation, a profession, a culture as well as a point in time between two wars. And a physical world is vividly present, for the blue is also the ocean, “a world brimming with water”, where the huge mammals swim, in which land is precarious and human habitation conditional.

Lilian and her taciturn husband Ed have one child left at home, the energetic Billy. The return of an older son Micky from Wellington and his dramatic participation in the whale hunt leads to the re-emergence of past trauma and to some kind of solution. Many of the characters carry painful and damaging memories: Ed from the Great War; his cousin, the Friar, from the loss of a woman he loved; Micky from his mother’s mysterious departure in his childhood; Lilian herself. What interests McCallum in these varying types of pain is the question of moral responsibility for the hurt people cause each other and the complex and paradoxical nature of love.

Lilian is the central consciousness of the novel, finely drawn through the banal and physical detail of running a household in an isolated place and seen always as mother and wife, as habitually alert to the needs of others. In her past is a devastating struggle between lover and child, that characteristic female anguish, which she cannot completely suppress or forget. As this is gradually revealed, McCallum carefully maintains sympathy for Lilian but also moves back and forth to other characters, especially the Friar, enlarging the reader’s sense of moral complexity.

The novel is beautifully paced as the excitement and suspense of chasing whales, and the accompanying violence, are interspersed with memories and reflections and with domestic scenes, such as the lovely one in which Lilian and her daughter Susan buy material for a child’s dress.

At the climax of the action Micky is wounded by his own father in a terrible accident; in the climax of the inner narrative the Friar at last confronts Lilian over her son’s hospital bed. Wounds mend and acceptance follows, which includes an understanding that self-denial is part of the character of love. This is a fine novel in which McCallum’s experience both as a writer in other forms and as a woman who has lived a bit permeates the texture of the writing.


Elizabeth Caffin was director of Auckland University Press from 1986 to 2007.


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