Penguin Books, $24.95,
The Hut Builder
Penguin Books, $40.00,
When I started Charlotte Randall’s Hokitika Town, I found it hard to get my head around the idiosyncratic patois used by the narrator, Halfie. As Halfie might say, I “rilly rilly” dislike novels that don’t use normal English; reading them is such hard work. I gave up on Peter Carey’s The True Story of the Ned Kelly Gang after a few chapters for that reason, and I “prolly” would have done the same with Hokitika Town if I hadn’t been reviewing it.
Eventually, though, I got used to the slightly strange rhythms of the book – they get less strange as the book goes on – and I’m glad I persevered. While Hokitika Town isn’t as much of a tour de force as Randall’s second novel, The Curative, the two books share similarities. The main one is that they both feature unusual and engaging narrators with an exuberant love of language.
William Lonsdale, the narrator of The Curative, is educated and erudite, with an impressive vocabulary. I had never encountered the word pabulum before reading The Curative, though I have occasionally encountered it since. Halfie – aka Harvey, Thumbsucker, Bedwetter, Cocoa and Pipsqueak – is the opposite. As a young, part-Maori boy who fetches up alone in Hokitika in 1865, he initially speaks little English and he is constantly confused by its many inconsistencies. “Inglish aint a langwich that behave itself,” he remarks at one point.
Randall renders a lot of Halfie’s language phonetically. The effect can be charming. He eats binarnas (when he can afford to buy them) rather than bananas, talks about Russher rather than Russia, and encounters a conan drum rather than a conundrum. In my favourite sentence of the whole novel, he dismisses Plato’s belief that the only thing worth exchanging money for is wisdom with this damning response: “Prolly Playtoe never et a binarna.”
Occasionally, though, the phonetic spelling is baffling. I puzzled over the opening words of Chapter 9 – “I melon cow lick” – for several minutes and still couldn’t figure out that Halfie meant he was “melancholic”. I’d completely forgotten he had already used the term – along with the rather sweet definition: “Melancholy is grown-up, filled out sadness” – 120 pages earlier.
Halfie’s difficulties with English provide Randall with plenty of opportunities to make fun of some of its odder turns of phrase – “yours truly”, “brass monkeys”. And it gives her a chance to play with them too. On one particularly wet night Halfie observes that it is not just raining cats and dogs “but bigger, tigers and wolfs”. It’s a perfect description of a West Coast downpour.
The gold rush is in full swing when Halfie arrives in Hokitika. The town is bustling with a chaotic mix of drunks, petty criminals, prostitutes – pavement nymphs as they are known locally – and a motley collection of lost souls trying to escape from themselves. Soon after he arrives, Halfie runs into Violet, a 15-year-old girl who works at one of the local pubs, the Bathsheba. Like Halfie, she is all alone, and she takes him under her wing, teaching him how to read and write English, and finding him work as a “coin boy” at the Bathsheba – doing odd jobs such as clearing plates and washing dishes for small amounts of money.
Before long he has gathered up two more important friends, Ludo, a drunken – but devoutly Christian – former gold digger, and Kaspar, a mysterious German who reads extensively from the works of the 19th-century philosopher Max Stirner. Despite their vastly different philosophies, Ludo and Kaspar take a genuinely fatherly interest in the naive but observant boy who is much given to “thinkings” and to “rememory”. At times, Halfie’s thinkings overwhelm him: “Now that I sitting quiet, some thinkings come oozing up. The thinkings is that I a boy of a lot of bleeding rememories. They nearly dead but still they lift their heads. They lift their heads and cry, rememory me.”
Halfie is surrounded by people who behave badly. They lie and they cheat, they are unfaithful to their spouses, they steal, they blackmail, and occasionally they kill people. He may not entirely understand what is going on in the adult world around him – though as the novel progresses he starts to work it out – but he knows that a lot of it is wrong. “What are you sighing at, liebling?” Kaspar asks him at one point. “Seems there a lot of people what need rescuing in this town,” Halfie replies sadly.
At the same time, there’s a farcical element to much of Hokitika Town; even if no-one actually bursts onto the stage through an open window, you feel that they easily could. In one memorable scene, Gertie, whose husband runs the Bathsheba, ends up attending her son’s engagement party wearing the dress his fiancée had intended to wear. Halfie, in a misguided attempt to cheer Gertie up – she spends her days in her darkened bedroom – gave her the dress after finding it in the young woman’s suitcase.
A lot of the humour comes from Halfie’s innocent observations and misunderstandings about what’s happening around him. But while, as the blurb on the back of the book claims, Hokitika Town is a “rattling good yarn”, it’s more than that. It’s also about belonging, and not belonging, about how to behave well in a world where most people behave badly, about how to truly care for people. Ultimately, it’s about the importance of love. And despite the many dramas and Halfie’s unsettling thinkings, it has a satisfyingly happy ending.
As Halfie and Ludo set sail from Hokitika for a new life, Ludo grabs Halfie by the cheeks and tells him that he brings sunshine to his soul: “He says that I his shelter, that he no more a man unhoused. I his shelter.” Halfie thinks about it for a while: “Isn’t being Ludo’s shelter a marvellous thing?” he asks.
If Halfie’s life, and the lives of those around him, are messy and chaotic, the world of Boden Black, the main character in Laurence Fearnley’s The Hut Builder, is anything but.
Boden is cautious and reserved. He’s also an unlikely combination – a butcher and a poet. It’s hard to imagine him behind the counter of a butcher’s shop – he’s not one of those jolly, nudge-nudge-wink-wink butchers, always ready with a risqué comment or a quip about meat. Quipping isn’t Boden’s style.
However, he is a talented – if minor – poet. We learn that his most famous poem, “Three Days At Least”, has been widely anthologised, and is said to be the third most-read New Zealand poem after Glover’s “The Magpies” and Tuwhare’s “The Rain” (just edging out Baxter’s “High Country Weather” for third place). Perhaps because of the illustrious company in which he sits, Fearnley doesn’t include any of Boden’s poems in the book. The most she gives us is a few pedestrian lines he wrote as a child after seeing the snow-covered Mackenzie Basin for the first time: “Snow – so white and bright/ Sparkling in the sun like a million twinkling diamond-lights.”
While you can understand Fearnley’s decision – trying to write a better poem than Baxter is a big ask – it means we get little sense of Boden’s inner or creative life. One can only hope his poems are less restrained than his prose.
As for how Boden views his literary success, as with so much else that happens to him – the discovery that he is adopted, for example, or his late-life romance with the ferocious Stella – he remains frustratingly low-key. “For years I had felt uneasy about my supposed standing as a New Zealand poet,” he writes. “Despite having a small collection to my name, as well as several pieces published in journals, anthologies and the like, I had never felt entitled to call myself a poet.”
The Hut Builder is written in four sections and spans more than 50 years, from Boden’s lonely 1940s childhood in Fairlie, near Lake Tekapo, to his attendance – as guest poet – at the opening of the (fictional) Aoraki Museum at Mt Cook in 2003. Most of the significant action, including the two weeks Boden spends building a hut on Mt Cook with a group of other young men, takes place during his childhood and adolescence. After that, we fast forward to Boden’s late middle age, when he meets Stella and connects – somewhat unsatisfactorily – with his birth sister.
The opening few pages of the novel made me think it was going to be a book about climbing. Boden is working with his father in the butcher’s shop. His father lifts down a blurry photograph from the wall and shows it to a customer. It’s of Boden standing on Mt Cook with Ed Hillary in the early 1950s. Boden, it turns out, once climbed Mt Cook – or at least part of it – with Hillary. “I sent a tray of those sausages up to my boy on Cook and I heard back – via Boden here – that Hillary thought they were the best he had ever tasted,” Mr Black senior tells the customer proudly.
I assumed that this climb would be the precursor to a life spent in the mountains, perhaps even a friendship with Hillary. But Sir Ed’s appearance turns out to be peripheral to the action – the two of them barely spoke – and the climb was the only one Boden ever made; the experience terrified him. Hillary is one of several historical characters who make cameo appearances in the book. Others include literary editor Charles Brasch and mountain guide Harry Ayres, as well as lesser-known figures such as Sam Marsden who ran Mt Cook Cordials for many years. Rather improbably, Boden is writing a poem about him.
Fearnley has obviously carried out extensive research. When Boden is a boy, he stays at The Hermitage at Mt Cook with his parents. She later mentions that the building they stayed in burned down in the late 50s, but her description of it is so detailed I assumed she must have been there. And while at times she includes information in a slightly gratuitous fashion – as in the mention of Marsden, for example – at other times it is surprisingly evocative. When one of her characters talks about going to Fails Café in Christchurch, I was briefly transported back to the Christchurch of my childhood; I had completely forgotten about Fails, a fish restaurant that used to be in Cashel Street.
Fearnley is probably at her best when writing about the Mackenzie Country, an area she spent a lot of time in as a child, and to which she is still strongly attached. Even Boden’s formal, rather stuffy prose can’t fail to capture the grandeur of the Southern Alps.
To be fair, Boden’s measured tone makes The Hut Builder much easier to read than Hokitika Town; there’s a lot to be said for a well-constructed sentence and normal English spelling. And even if Halfie manages to cram more living into a few years than Boden does into an entire lifetime, Boden’s journey is not without “thinkings”. Like Halfie, he comes to realise that what matters most is love.
Towards the end of the novel he phones Stella, who is travelling in Britain. He wants to tell her he loves her – that, like Ludo, he is no longer a man unhoused. He suspects that Stella wants to do the same. Being Boden, though, he can’t quite bring himself to say the actual word: neither can she. Instead they settle for an unspoken declaration: “But it was alright. We understood each other.”
Ruth Nichol is a Wellington reviewer.