Penguin Books, $39.00,
All That We Remember
The Graphologist’s Apprentice
Many years ago television director Peter Sharpe asked for script submissions from the general public in the hopes of finding some exciting new material which reflected who we are as New Zealanders. He was disappointed to find the majority of submissions were ghost stories. How far have we come since then? Lately there has been a plethora of ghost stories emanating from America, not to mention the plague of vampires. Perhaps in response, two of the novels reviewed here, All That We Remember and Villa Pacifica, deal with the paranormal.
It is possibly unfair to explain at the outset that Villa Pacifica explores the supernatural because it is not until the last 30 pages that the reader realises the action that has occupied the greater part of the novel takes place in a parallel universe. The novel could well be defined as “magic realism”, which American professor Matthew Strecher described as “What happens when a highly detailed, realistic setting is invaded by something too strange to believe.” The question is: at what point should the “strange” invade?
The answer, I believe, lies with the reader. Readers have expectations; they like to know what they are in for. They read a book because it is a whodunnit, a romance, a literary work, magic realism or fantasy, depending on taste and mood. Anyone who invests considerable time in reading what their suspension of disbelief has allowed to be true, can only be disappointed when it turns out not to be so. The genre cannot be sprung on the reader at the last minute.
Kapka Kassabova is a highly respected poet and award-winning travel writer, and I really wanted to enjoy and admire Villa Pacifica. Sadly, even before the let-down of the but-it-was-all-a-dream ending, there are several things about the novel that irked. A lot of “snorting” is done; not of coke, but as a manner of speaking.
“‘There’s a surprise,’ Jerry snorted.” Several pages later, “Jerry snorted: ‘Okay, okay!’” and on it goes, with even some of the other characters displaying the same tendency. The second time someone snorts as an attribution it is annoying, and by the umpteenth it is grossly irritating. If a word or turn of phrase is an apt or happy one it bears using only once, although I am not convinced “snorted” is either happy or apt.
The setting in a South American resort, with its steamy, torpid atmosphere, is well-evoked and on the whole the descriptive pieces are woven into the story sufficiently well to avoid the feeling of its being a travelogue. However, there are some purple patches. “She had a silvery laugh that ran ahead of her like dropped coins” is unbecoming of a poet of Kassabova’s stature.
The novel takes place in the eponymous Villa Pacifica with a large cast of stereotypical characters: the brittle, efficient airline hostess with her gay companion; the loud-mouthed American and cowed wife; the shaman-like American Indian and his wise old mother, and the wealthy South American with the trophy wife. The protagonist, travel-guide writer Ute (pronounced “ooh-ta”), turns up with her academic husband, Jerry, and there follows a great deal of inconsequential dialogue along with an increasing sense of menace.
Ute experiences many moments of unrequited lust and foreboding: “It’s as if a malevolent spirit dwelled here with them, in the heavy drugged air of the cabin, and seeped into their days and nights.” But nothing happens until page 249 – at which point we move to another time and place. The “strange” has invaded.
Two things made me a bit grumpy at the outset with Zoë Adams’s All That We Remember. The first was the use of italics in the opening chapter. Italics disrupt the flow of the narrative. There is yet another change in font when the protagonist, Aimee Carmichael, writes in her journal, which would be acceptable if it were the only one. Changing font is a clumsy device, and is vaguely insulting to the reader, particularly as the italicised text is written in the first person and mostly in the past tense, while the standard text is in the third person, present tense.
Added to that, the tone and voice of each is unmistakable – a credit to the author – and most readers are smart enough to be able to work out what is happening, without the aid of different fonts.
The second thing was the identity of the author. Publicity for the book states that it “marks a new direction for a well-respected New Zealand writer who wishes to remain anonymous.” My reading of the first chapters was consumed by the questions: Who is Zoë Adams? And why did she/he want to remain anonymous? One answer to the last question could be that the author is a “serious” writer and All That We Remember is light fiction which deals with the supernatural.
Eventually I got involved in the narrative sufficiently to forget these questions. Aimee has amnesia after a car accident and returns to the family mansion to help stimulate her memory. She is supported by her boyfriend Charley, the old family retainer, Margaret, a childhood friend who resurfaces and a psychic. Instead of reliving her own memories she remembers someone else’s life in the house, and the tension builds between the ghost of her past and her present life, with an unexpected ending. The plot is intricately woven, with surprising twists which it would not be fair to divulge. It is not a demanding read, but the narrative drive is strong and insistent.
I can’t help but feel, though, that this would have worked better as a “normal” psychological study. Aimee’s breakdown could well have been brought about by imagined ghosts, and the revelations of the past could have been divulged in any number of other ways. This would have made it a more powerful work, but at least readers know from the outset that they are embarking on a journey with a ghost as fellow traveller.
By far the most satisfying book of these three is The Graphologist’s Apprentice by Whiti Hereaka. Here, too, reality and unreality clash but in a way that is totally believable because the conflict is psychological, not supernatural. This is the author’s debut novel, but she has writing credits in theatre, film, radio and print. She was the Randall Cottage Writer in residence for 2007, and recently won the Adam New Zealand Play Award for best play by a Maori playwright.
The premise of this novel is original – January, an emotionally unstable young woman, meets the “secret keeper”, Mae, who is a graphologist, and it is graphology, the process of which is authentically described and neatly inserted into the narrative, that gives this book its edge.
The relationship between the two women is strained to begin with, but January is determined to learn the secrets of Mae’s art while Mae insists that “Graphology is more than memorising traits and tendencies. It is about understanding humanity… .” This novel is a reflection of who we are today. It examines the enigma of relationship in the modern world; it explores the slow disintegration of the mind and the restorative power of love and friendship; in short, it examines what it is to be human.
The characterisation is strong. January is a mixture of the insecure and feisty. She models her fantasies on the romance novels she is fond of reading; is an indifferent workmate to her colleague, Alice; has driven her boss to distraction:
“So if I do this course, I’ll get paid more?”
“Well, not at once. But if it improves your performance then we can reassess the situation.”
“So I would be doing the course for nothing?”
“It would improve your performance and challenge you personally.”
“So basically, you get a more skilled worker at a chump’s rate? I don’t think so.”
Exactly what January does for a job is never fully explained. It has something to do with data entry and project planning; a mystery to both reader and character. It could be summed up simply: as little as possible; although her avoidance of work and lack of meaningful contact with workmates only exacerbates her feelings of dislocation. “The idea of forcing people to interact with their workmates on their own time is repugnant to her” is her reaction to the forthcoming staff Matariki party.
Mae is encapsulated thus:
A breeze tugs at the brim of Mae’s hat, threatening to topple its perch. It’s not the done thing these days, taking pride in your appearance, but Mae believes it shows respect for all those around you. A woman who does not try must be very conceited indeed; she must think that she cannot be improved. What a marvellous day to be a grump with the world!
The novel is set in Wellington and has a strong sense of place. Readers who know the city will recognise many settings:
January walks down the Terrace towards Parliament. The city has been renewed and she feels at peace…The ghosts of the Bolton Street cemetery call to her…January ignores them. She has fought to become this blank canvas; a woman who can pick and choose her ghosts. Her old superstitions haunt her: she spits on her hands as she walks past Seddon’s memorial.
One interesting parallel between this novel and Kassabova’s is that both protagonists suffer from eczema, an external manifestation of their inner turmoil, which is cured as part of the resolution of their stories. Perhaps eczema could do for New Zealand literature what consumption did for 19th– century opera – ah, but that brings to mind Lucia di Lammermoor, and we are back with the ghosts.
Joan Rosier-Jones is a Whanganui writer and teacher. Her most recent novel is The Murder of Chow Yat (2009).