Flights of fancy, Diane Hebley

Raymond Huber
Walker Books, $16.99,
ISBN 9781921150890

The Strange and Diverting Story of The Loblolly Boy: A Fantasy Novel Involving Enchantment, Mystery, one Garden Gnome and a Wombat’s Bottom
James Norcliffe
Longacre Press, $19.99,
ISBN 9781877460258

Return for the Gold
Margaret Hall
Longacre Press, $18.99,
ISBN 9781877460265

Of literary truths universally acknowledged, the simplest is that a good novel tells a good story. How that is achieved is far from simple, but readers mainly expect convincing narrative skills, freshly intriguing characters and challenges, and enriching insights into the various ways of the world. The three novels under review demonstrate these points. All use double narration; all emphasise the power of collaboration.

Whereas most novelists choose appealing mammals for anthropomorphic fantasy, Raymond Huber in Sting chooses bees. (Google lists only one other bee fantasy.) With wit in dialogue and sympathy for the classic outsider, he makes Ziggy delightfully credible. Ziggy’s often humorous, bee’s-eye view of the world reveals his intelligence and resourcefulness, with a magnetic sense and mind-mapping skills far more advanced than is usual in honey bees. Ziggy is also admirably loyal to friends who help him on his quest to discover his true identity.

Huber illuminates the complex, collaborative life of honey bees, ranging from their air-conditioning system to their dances indicating sources of nectar. He introduces Ziggy to wild bees, bumblebees, hybrid bees, carder bees, wasps, and African killer bees whose presence suggests an unspecified USA setting for this fantasy. These killers attack honey bees already mysteriously reduced in numbers (the varroa mite isn’t mentioned), and so further endanger the fertilisation of plants. Without losing story momentum, Huber draws attention to this threat.

As well, he uses a second voice to enlarge perceptions beyond Ziggy’s ken. Dr Sophie Domisse breeds hybrid bees, such as Ziggy, to increase their natural skills, and her intermittent notes record progress. This second point of view sometimes produces drollness. For example, Dr Sophie thinks she’s “teaching the first hybrid simple signals which he is beginning to understand”. But Ziggy’s friend Wiri thinks their hybrid brother Florian is teaching Sophie “simple signals. She is learning fast.” Both sides agree their unique partnership is valuable: bees give honey and humans supply hives.

Less appealing in this partnership, however, is the secret military project to train bees to smell out explosives. But Sophie doesn’t want her bees sent into military danger. Her stance adds to the anti-war theme inherent in Ziggy’s let’s-talk-not-fight approach to wasps. Nevertheless, the hybrids and Sophie collaborate to destroy a swarm of killer bees.

Finally, the title Sting points to an amazing example of human-bee collaboration. Ziggy and his sister Osmia save Sophie after her fall in the river knocks her out: Osmia deliberately stings her back to consciousness. In revealing the marvellous world of bees, Huber has produced a valuable and exciting “good story”.

The joys of flying naturally thrill Ziggy in Sting. The human desire for joyous flight has also driven many a story from that of legendary Icarus to Barrie’s Peter Pan. In his evocatively entitled The Loblolly Boy, James Norcliffe sweeps the reader along with lyrical exhilaration and suspended disbelief as the loblolly boy rides the air on beautiful wings “long and soft … with a speckle and an emerald shine”, soaring over a suggested Christchurch-Banks Peninsula landscape.

He is not a Peter Pan, however, wanting perpetual childhood. Rather, to make an exchange into a loblolly boy, an ordinary boy must have the deepest longing to escape his miserable circumstances. But soon comes a crucial philosophical problem. Since a loblolly boy can’t be seen or heard, except by a few Sensitives, and can’t eat or feel, does he exist? The loneliness and looming “great nothingness” are appalling. So, despite the wonder of flying, each loblolly boy desperately seeks to regain real life, however dire. The grass really isn’t greener …

Norcliffe opens his novel with a beautifully crafted third-person prologue. Ben longs to escape the misery caused by Janice, his father’s new shrew of a woman. He clutches his precious Hornby engine, a story-linking device, as the family proceeds to relocate north. In the motel garden on the way, he meets a loblolly boy.

Norcliffe then switches to a first-person narrator. Michael languishes in a wretched orphanage. When he encounters the loblolly boy, formerly Ben, both are ready for an Exchange. A flash of blue, a spread of wings – and Michael takes off.  Out on the Peninsula, magic abounds. He meets a talking seagull and a mysterious Captain Bass, the supporter of Newborns, who significantly lends him a Hornby engine. A telescope shows him a vision of his future.

In the city, Michael finds a separated family – mother struggling to raise twin daughters, father departed with son. The narrative bowls along through a complicated series of surprising events and loblolly Exchanges involving Michael and the feisty, Sensitive twins. They confront their irate teacher, hands on hips “like a furious teapot” and then a sinister Collector, also a Sensitive, who wants to pin out an encased loblolly boy like a dead insect.

Comedy develops from the loblolly’s invisibility, sometimes with serious outcomes. For example, insults appear on the classroom blackboard, devastating the teacher; a garden gnome falls from the sky, flattening the pursuing Collector.

The ending of Norcliffe’s story offers traditional hope and restoration. When an old photo of Michael with a wombat confirms his identity, the children together plan to be reunited as a proper family after loblolly Michael has persuaded Ben at the orphanage to make another Exchange. Ben, holding his beloved Hornby engine again, realises how much he wants his father, despite Janice. Meanwhile, flying to find them is wonderful – an appropriately powerful image to conclude this novel of enchantment.

One mystery remains: where did Norcliffe’s first loblolly boy come from? Real, historical loblolly boys worked in 18th-century warships as the lowly assistant to the surgeon, feeding gruel (loblolly)
to the sick and wounded, and mopping up mess. Could Norcliffe’s boy possibly be descended from one who had somehow escaped his dreadful reality? Now there’s a flight of fancy.

The only flights of fancy Mary Kendrick experiences are nightmares. They dominate her isolated West Coast life in the late 1880s in Margaret Hall’s Return for the Gold, the long-awaited sequel to Swag and Tucker (1993), in which Lucas and Southern are sent to trial in Christchurch. Now, though they are jailed for robbery and murder, Mary rightly fears Southern will return for the gold still hidden nearby, and abduct her too. Hall maintains the story’s tension throughout by ending each chapter with a short, third-person update of Southern’s scheming.

Meanwhile, Hall’s main storyline is carried by Mary’s first-person record of settler life. She captures the drama of coping with birth, marriage, and death, driving cattle across beaches and raging rivers, building houses in bush clearings and searching for missing children, enduring the ordeal of travel, and facing lifestyle changes from goldmining to farming. Community support is crucial. Warm friendships develop among families of mixed origins, notably Irish, Greek, English, Maori. Occasional celebratory gatherings offset hardships.

Hall handles well her large cast of characters. Most are fictitious; some like Mr Condon, the mailman, are historical. Three families totalling 24 members live at the fictitious Swag and Tucker Beach just south of Gillespies Beach. Several other personalities in the district, such as the teasing miner-forester Paddy Flynn, regularly play their parts. Mary at 16 is vivacious and quick-tempered, engaged to marry Nik in two years’ time. Her father is firm and protective, her mother patient and understanding.

In this Irish family, education is important. Mary teaches the children; brother Brendan enjoys study at St Patrick’s College in Wellington. Bess, Mary’s closest friend, joins the family after Mary’s father rescues her from exploitation. However, the evil character of John Southern is dominant. His cunning acting and determination ensure his escape – with help from coerced associates.

But he’s not cunning enough. When he reappears, disguised as a woman, Mary’s dog Wag gives him away. As in other settler crises, collaboration brings success. Southern, on retrieving the gold, is outsmarted and shot, which leaves Mary feeling free at last. The story reaches a joyful conclusion when Mary marries her Nik. Attitudes and rituals in this fine evocation of West Coast settler life, however, may surprise some of today’s teenage readers.

So the authors of these fine books in their different ways demonstrate admirable skills in using two narrative voices to create lively characters, exciting adventures, intriguing aspects and perceptions of life. And they confirm the value and power of collaboration.


Diane Hebley is a Napier reviewer. 


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