Age-old contracts, Elizabeth Caffin

A Year to Learn a Woman
Paddy Richardson
Penguin Books, $28.00,
ISBN 9780143010029

Bridget van der Zijpp
Victoria University Press, $30.00, 
ISBN 9780864735751

The Rehearsal
Eleanor Catton 
Victoria University Press, $30.00, 
ISBN 9780864735812

A woman around 40, now on her own, lonely and needy, at a turning point in her life: this shade from the 1970s is the central figure of the first two of these novels. They are conventional novels in which the reader is invited into this female consciousness and shares in the uncovering of the past and eventually a more positive move into the future. In each case a dramatic and disturbing opening is followed by explanation, consequences and solution.

Paddy Richardson’s novel has some of the characteristics of a thriller. It focuses on Travis Crill, jailed for sexual assaults on women. Claire is commissioned to write his story and to confront the paradox of why an apparently respectable man has been convicted of such crimes. The narrative is shaped by the use of different voices, by Claire’s growing obsession with Crill’s behaviour and by a mounting sense of anxiety, all rather overheated. A parallel narrative charts daughter Annie’s involvement with an irritating American school friend, Samantha. Careful and deliberate planning leads to a spectacular and violent dénouement in which both evil forces attempt the worst and are defeated.

The bones of this story stand out too starkly and at several points credibility is strained: is such a writing commission likely, would the commissioning lawyer really have had his author followed, would not Samantha’s criminal tendencies have come to light sooner and how did everyone happen to end up at a seaside cottage at the same moment? If it is hard to be convinced by the growing relationship between Claire and the detective inspector or the sleazy sections in Crill’s own voice or the repeated accounts of his six different sexual assaults, the explanation is sadly in the limitations of a prose style which often becomes banal.

In the end even the plot disappoints because little is revealed about Travis Crill to alter our initial impression, let alone to achieve any more ambitious aims, and the novel for all its conscientiousness is quite forgettable.

Misconduct, a first novel, is a simple and modest work, but not a simplistic one: its subtleties grow on you. Its single viewpoint allows for ironies and wit without earnestness, and an alert and amused attention to human foible and idiosyncrasy. Simone has just lost a baby, a lover, a job and even her driving licence. Provoked, she behaves badly, as the title suggests, in just the kind of messy, embarrassing and stupid way one does. Taking a chance to escape, she agrees to look after a house and a dog in a small isolated beachside village.

Getting to know the neighbours, mostly elderly and eccentric, gives an energy to the narrative and enables her to reflect on the confusion of her own life. Strange but comforting parallels emerge: Clara coping with a senile husband; Hanife, a refugee from Kosovo and from a bad marriage; posh Marjorie whose husband is in prison. As it turns out, they too have a collective and comic history of “misconduct”, eventually resolved in court. But the implied contrast with Simone’s city friends with their successful husbands and gorgeous children is cleverly managed so that Clara’s use of the word “daughter” towards Simone does not seem absurd, and the concluding birthday party is an appropriate ceremonial finale.

The gentle moral force of the novel excuses Simone’s justifiable rage and a little marijuana among old friends, turning the title indictment elsewhere; it puts pressure on small acts of kindness, ordinary respect and courtesy, a friendly dog, an ability to forgive. Pervading the book is a generous and affectionate humanity which finally includes Fraser, the ex-boyfriend, recognised cheerfully as a “total arsehole”. Sentimentality and melodrama hover at some moments but in general van der Zijpp avoids them and just gets away with an unlikely happy ending.

These two novels are professional exercises of storytelling, depending on the age-old contract between writer and reader that makes fictions true. However Eleanor Catton in her first novel, The Rehearsal, is working in quite different territory: she breaks the contract on every page. Acutely aware of the multiple fabrications of a fictive text, she devises a brilliant and elaborate work. It is not propelled by story or plot, or even much by character, but by the clever device of not a novel within a novel, or a play within a play, but a play within a novel.

Two alternating narrative strands explore, first, the events following a sexual scandal at a girls’ school and focusing on Isolde, sister of the “victim”; and, second, Stanley’s getting into drama school and his first year there, culminating in a student-devised play about  . . . the events following a sexual scandal at a girls’ school etc. Thus the novel enacts in a playful, cerebral and amazingly dexterous fashion the human confusion between the real and the imagined, the experienced and the performed, the watched and the watcher, and the way this is coloured by desire, anxiety, danger. It is a series of patterns, shifting, reversing, surfacing, fading; or a game in which pieces apparently in place move and transform and tease.

The reader has to think fast. There is a fluid sense of movement which is comic, ironic and compassionate too. In bringing the two protagonists together (and then apart), for example, the novel acknowledges and mocks the conventional structure.

Dramatic events occur but mostly offstage. Mr Saladin’s affair with Victoria is of course largely hidden but as a catalyst it provokes scandal, gossip, innuendo and, most of all, imagination. By acquiring knowledge it does not have, Victoria has offended her generation, has entered into a secret, intimate world about which they can but guess. Only Julia, clever, a loner and rumoured to be gay, is able to recognise the excitement that such a risky liaison involves. Attracting Isolde’s attention by speaking back to the counsellor, she herself becomes a threat, a risk.

The Rehearsal is also a vivid picture, drawn by someone for whom it is still fresh in the mind, of the perilous and painful transition between childhood and adulthood, especially its sexual tension, its contemporary knowingness, its ancient innocence. There is nothing these girls don’t know about; there is nothing they do. Their feverish imaginations run riot: “ ‘I imagine things when I watch people.’ ” So Catton conveys too a moving and vicious view of the clash of generations – the teachers and the parents are given no names but they manipulate, control and envy, their power fraught with nostalgia for their own youth and with longing for intimacy. The saxophone teacher, whose artificial language reflects her theatrical role, is a central director/artist, whose interventions in the personal lives of her students are insidious and sad. Stanley’s father, a psychiatrist, is a bluff and comic foil. Their lives are conducted vicariously through their students, clients, children.

The young central characters, however, learn about life from art and invention: “ ‘The template always preceded the reality, the experience, the personal truth of a thing. I learned about love from the cinema, and from television, and from the stage.’ ” The rehearsal is the substitute experience: by copying, recreating, practising, it anticipates the real and the actual, the final performance, the opening night which never comes. A very smart contemporary allegory of growing up, it also sees the human condition as a bumbling practice run in which we all try to perform imagined roles. “ ‘Of course I’m going to rehearse all of this in the mirror,’ the saxophone teacher says at last. ‘Before I say it to you. I’ll rehearse it over and over. Until I have the confidence to tell you this, out loud.’ ”

The sheer artifice of this novel, its bold and confident theatricality, is astounding, and it avoids pretension by its precise attention to detail, its skill with language and especially its ear for dialogue. The frequently heightened speech is a way of asserting the complex interweaving of fiction and drama, story and play, imagined and enacted. The images of the old Canterbury University College, now the Christchurch Arts Centre, with its quadrangles, lecture halls and gingko tree, provide a kind of classical stage set where these multiple inventions occur. The melding of play and novel is a perfect vehicle for what is an ongoing discussion on why art is important. The Rehearsal is dense with ideas, paradoxes and propositions that reverberate long after closing the book; but it also has an emotional intensity – it is provocative in every sense – that reminds one of Proust. This gifted young novelist gets enormous pleasure out of the rich possibilities the form can provide, her zest is pervasive and her talent remarkable.


Elizabeth Caffin is a Wellington reviewer. 


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