That old stuff, Coral Atkinson

The Sea Between
Carol Thomas
HarperCollins, $36.99,
ISBN 9781869507626

Weathered Bones
Michele Powles
Penguin Books, $28.00,
ISBN 9780143011248

Flashback Forward
John Cairney
Black Swan, $29.99,
ISBN 9781869419219

After generations of being like adolescents with no interest in “that old stuff”, Pakeha New Zealanders have finally discovered our country’s past. Suddenly we can’t get enough of it, with writers, readers, historians and genealogists voraciously exploring, researching and recreating our own and the nation’s antecedents. In the last 10 years home-grown historical fiction has rocketed in availability and popularity, as the personalities, events and oddities of our shared ancestral cupboards are dusted down and endowed with new life.

All this seems very positive in terms of New Zealand’s developing cultural profile and sense of self.  More perplexing, in the area of historical fiction, is the question of authenticity. Fiction by its very nature is a contrivance of lies and fabrication, yet when we write of the past it seems most of us have an expectation that there will be some concern for what is accurate and appropriate for the period and milieu in which the story is set. Many readers say that learning about another time is one of the pleasures of reading within this genre.

While accepting that historical fiction is, by its very nature, constantly imposing the attitudes, prejudices, sympathies, language and preoccupations of one time on another, there is still the imperative to do it well. Stage-management is needed, but it must be handled with convincing discretion. If we see the rabbit before the conjuror’s show begins, we fail to be impressed when the creature miraculously emerges from a hat. Similarly, once the chinks of inaccuracy appear in a novel, our willingness to accept the premise of the whole and follow the writer is quickly undermined and destroyed. The questions we need to ask are: how accurate do writers of historical fiction have to be, to retain reader trust and attention? And what responsibilities do they have in portraying the past?

The Sea Between, Carol Thomas’ third historical novel, is set in the 1860s and early 1870s in rural Canterbury and  Lyttelton. It is an Elizabeth Bennet/Mr Darcy tale of violent antipathies concealing secret affinities. Strong-minded Charlotte Blake is in love with a handsome sea captain, Richard Steele, but is not prepared to accept his offer of marriage unless he gives up his ocean-going life and finds a career that permits much longer periods ashore. The ramifications of the couple’s refusal to compromise bring deep heartache, squabbling and unhappiness to Charlotte, Richard, and their families, before a happy resolution is finally reached. The central issue of the early part of the novel revolves around Richard’s determination to stick with his employment, but given the number of sea captains who lived with wives on their vessels in this period, one is left speculating why this solution is not explored.

Our current preoccupation in historical novels appears to be girl power. We crave the feisty heroine, regardless of how well this may sit with Victorian mores or realities. Charlotte is a superwoman, she kills a wild boar with a spade (no mean feat for any woman, let alone one presumably of the small size of most of our foremothers and encumbered with the clobber of hoops, corsets and multiple petticoats) and later renders a burglar unconscious with a blow from an ewer. She is also a proficient musterer of sheep in snowy conditions, a successful shopkeeper, and a reader of Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women. (One might query how many copies of this book, if any, there were in New Zealand at the time; the notion of a group of Lyttelton women discussing it in the late 1860s seems far-fetched.)

Charlotte, under the influence of an enlightened feminist aunt, chaffs at the restrictions imposed on her. But given her family’s willingness to permit her whole days of riding unchaperoned with a man they scarcely know, the acceptance with which an anecdote that would have been considered improper at the time is told in her presence, and her own readiness to speak her mind, the restrictions seem neither accurate nor over-arduous.

The Sea Between is a romantic novel told with occasional humour. It touches on some interesting events which took place in 19th century Lyttelton. These include the opening of the rail tunnel in 1867, the tsunami of 1868, and the great fire of 1871. It is a pity the reader is not offered more in the way of period description. There is also a tendency to present unabsorbed pieces of historical information as dialogue: “You’ll look forward to the shipping canal between Port Said and Suez being completed, then,” John remarked. “It’ll shorten your journey from India to England considerably.” However, if you are seeking a light, fast-moving tale set in Victorian Canterbury, the novel may be for you.

A supernaturally strong woman is the focus of Weathered Bones. In this work of magic realism the lives of two contemporary Wellington women come into collision with the demanding presence of a spirit from another time. Inspired by the real life story of Mary Jane Bennett, New Zealand’s first permanent and only female lighthouse keeper, the novel tells the story of widowed grandmother Antoinette and emotionally fragile young wife Grace. Slow to gain momentum, perhaps on account of the fragmented structure inherent in ensemble works, the tale becomes increasingly compelling, as Grace and Antoinette are forced to make difficult choices and draw on dwindling reserves of interior strength.

Eliza McGregor, the spectral lighthouse keeper and vortex of an unnatural storm, dominates the book. Her terrifying presence is evoked with such power that at times she threatens to capsize other aspects of the novel. The author has a strong facility with words and metaphors. Some are wonderfully apt, others over-lavish.

One wonders why the dated diary entries are used in the account of the human Eliza. By tying Eliza to the actual arrival of the Duke of Roxburgh, one of the first ships bringing Pakeha migrants to Wellington, the historically savvy reader has certain expectations. In the early months of 1840 the settlers would presumably have been huddling in rough shelters on the Petone foreshore and there would be no marriages performed in “the golden glow” of the first St Paul’s Church (which had yet to be built). Similarly, even the most rudimentary cottage at Pencarrow Head, the site of the first light and home of the original Mary Jane Bennett, was not erected for some years.

But such points are quibbles. This is an engaging work from a first-time novelist who writes with power and imagination. I am sure we will hear more from Powles. I hope we do.

In Flashback Forward, John Cairney uses fantasy for rather different ends. The novel starts promisingly enough, with 18-year-old Tam Cochrane, invalid son of a prosperous Glasgow family. Tam is an appealing young man, and the handling of him, his life and that of his family carries conviction. In 1886 the family emigrates to New Zealand and on the journey Tam’s fragile health dramatically improves. No sooner do they land than the Cochranes head for the famed Pink and White Terraces. Given the date and the place the reader has little doubt what will happen. Mount Tarawera erupts on cue, William Cochrane, the hero’s father, is killed, and the family, with the exception of an unmarried aunt, return to Scotland.

When we meet Tam (subsequently called Tom) again he is waking with amnesia in Napier in 1931, following the earthquake, and, although 45 years have passed, he is still a young man. On the far side of the world in Glasgow, the other Tam Cochrane, now a curmudgeonly bachelor in his 60s, is living out a crabbed life with his sister.

This is a novel that seems all dressed up with nowhere to go. The initial premise is so hugely ambitious that there is scant conviction in what follows. Tom goes from strength to strength, effortlessly achieving in a derring-do fashion as photographer, concert pianist, stunt flyer, decorated fighter pilot and top-secret military observer, while old Tam, having returned to New Zealand, is finally released from his ageing lethargy.

In the end the reader is left perplexed as to what this novel of fractured time and parallel universes is really about. At one level it could be an extended metaphor for emigration – what migrant has not considered how their life story might have played out if they had stayed put. According to Flashback Forward’s jacket blurb, however, the novel deals with identity. The helter-skelter action of much of the story hardly illuminates either interpretation.


Coral Atkinson is a Christchurch historical fiction writer and publishing tutor.


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