The Phoenix Song
Victoria University Press, $38.00,
The Secret Life of James Cook: A Novel
“It takes a great deal of history,” wrote Henry James in 1879, “to produce a little literature.” He was talking about Nathaniel Hawthorne, but there’s an interesting and pertinent truth here for those who venture into the land that lies between history and fiction. Both John Sinclair and Graeme Lay have written novels that are tied, in the latter case very closely, to real events, although their subject matter and approach are strikingly different.
Sinclair’s novel, his first, is set in mid-20th-century China – and, more briefly, in Europe and New Zealand – under the sinister totalitarianism of Mao’s revolution. The protagonist is Xiao Magou, a young violin prodigy, who grows up in Harbin, a city of melded races and cultures. Her parents are committed Chinese revolutionaries but her life is also profoundly shaped by Kasimir and Piroshka, the émigré White Russian Jewish musicians who raised her mother. Because she speaks both Chinese and Russian, she becomes involved in espionage – spying on Russian musicians while studying in Shanghai – and her life continues to be shaped by the bizarre and frighteningly random cultural edicts of the Maoist regime.
The Secret Life of James Cook, the latest of several novels written by Lay, is described as “a fictionalised account” of the great English navigator’s early years: it covers Cook’s childhood, his naval career and the first of the famous world voyages. Also at the centre of the book are his marriage to the long-suffering and much abandoned Elizabeth (and the couple’s children, all born while their father was at sea) and his uneasy relationship with the insouciant and wealthy naturalist, Joseph Banks.
For a debut novel, The Phoenix Song is remarkably accomplished. (In its compelling and convincing evocation of a place and time, and its focus on music – Shostakovich has a role – the novel reminded me a little of Sarah Quigley’s impressive The Conductor.) Sinclair tackles an unusual and fascinating subject – and he does so memorably and with intelligent flair. The book remains in the mind as a series of scenes, like delicate Chinese paintings, precise and lyrical descriptions that are observed and shaped almost cinematically. Here is the reader’s introduction to Harbin:
Imagine a cityscape, a far northern city crouched like a sleeping tramp beneath a yellow sky at dawn on a morning in early spring. The low sun picks out a jumble of shapes from amongst the roof-tops – triangles, oblongs, rhombuses – harlequin lozenges of light and dark with edges ruled pencil-sharp … . A veil of sandy light covers the whole scene, somehow intensifying the extreme cold, making it crisp and astringent, minutely sharp, a vapour of tiny blades drawn across the nostrils onto the back of the throat. The city holds as still as it can to keep this cold at bay, making barely a shuffle under its blanket of silence, under a sky stretched tight like a threadbare awning against the vault of Heaven.
And there is more in this vein – two clocks that “shower the room with the crisp, white notes of ordinary time” and, in Paris, “a jumble of slanting roofs like a pile of fallen books”. This is fine writing, thoughtful and original and fresh, produced by someone who respects and understands language and knows how to make it sing.
There are some less successful aspects. The novel could have benefited from some tightening to improve pace and impact: for example, the detail of the overheard conversations among the Russians is occasionally a little trying. The research sometimes shows, too, revealing itself in brief but jarring factual summaries of contemporary events, supposedly read in the newspaper. More problematically, Sinclair seems uncertain about the degree of empathy he allows/wants his readers to have for the characters, particularly the protagonist, and does not always bring his creations completely to credible life. It is difficult, for example, to judge Xiao Magou’s apparently unquestioning enthusiasm for the spying she is asked to do. Nor is there much sense that she misses her parents, from whom she is separated for long periods. And when she sleeps with fellow music student Tian, on p240, it is not until p286 that she has any reaction: “I felt a shiver of remembered disgust.” This blankness could, of course, be read as a result of long exposure to a harsh and rigid political regime – as one character says, “We have made a decision not to have choice” – but the novel would have been richer for more of the emotion shown in the beautifully controlled last pages, where Xiao looks back on her eventful life. But The Phoenix Song has power and imaginative presence. Sinclair is a writer to watch.
If you set out, as Lay has done, to write history as fiction, that fiction must add colour and shading to the black and white of fact, must offer something that cannot be found in the non-fiction accounts (of which there are many, in Cook’s case). Perhaps, too, a novel can illuminate people not always seen or considered. In this case, the obvious candidate for such exposure is Elizabeth Cook. Even with her husband as the focus of the novel, and a promise in the blurb that she will be given page-room, a more complex imagining of her clearly remarkable personality would have been welcome.
Lay has the ability and experience to keep a narrative moving and tell a story, and proceeding chronologically is not in itself a problem, but this novel does so with little variation in pitch, and the result is too often unengaging and even rather dull. There is a good deal of telling where there should be showing – “her gentle company and utter naturalness delighted him and was bringing a new dimension to his life” (James courting Elizabeth) – and Cook also “realises” things far too frequently. Almost everyone who enters the novel is introduced immediately in exactly the same way, with a potted physical description of facial shape, colouring, hair, clothing and so on. Settings, particularly rooms, are delineated in the same manner. There are too many questions. Anachronisms should have been pounced on: no one received “huge news” in the 18th century, and nor did they say “I am sorry for your loss” or think, as Cook does, “These people were unbelievable.” There should have been pouncing, too, on clichés: “white water like the streaming manes of galloping horses”, steepled fingers, looking levelly, a metaphorical hit by a lightning bolt.
Lay’s prose is an odd mixture of almost non-fictional narrative and sometimes slightly melodramatic popular fiction. This is not helped by far too many distracting and apparently unnoticed instances of words repeated very close together: “James stopped, peered into the pallid face, the huge, dark eyes. The cheekbones of her emaciated face were prominently delineated.” Lay does not assist the reader’s imaginative involvement, either, by including overlong quotes from contemporary books (clumsily read out by characters) or by using lengthy fictional letters from Cook, in notoriously non-user-friendly italic, as a narrative device to describe the world voyage.
Lay certainly knows his stuff when it comes to the Pacific, and maritime life, and there are some vivid and colourful descriptions of both of these – and of Banks’s amorous shenanigans with the locals. But because the author remains resolutely outside the personalities and emotions of his characters, recounting rather than amplifying or suggesting them, the reader finishes the novel without any real sense of knowing a great deal more about Cook’s “secret life”, or that of those he knew and loved.
As Hilary Mantel has so brilliantly shown in Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, outstanding fiction can be wrought from famous lives, and, as Lay has rightly perceived, Cook’s story, like Thomas Cromwell’s, is full of potential – a complex and ambitious man from an ordinary family fighting his way to the top of his profession, a wife left for long periods to bring up a family alone, clashes with Banks, interaction with indigenous peoples. But Lay has been unable to transmute fact into satisfying fiction, and the reader is left with the impression that a well-written biography of the captain may do the job just as well.
In that same essay on Hawthorne, Henry James noted that “the flower of art blooms only where the soil is deep”. Sinclair may need to learn a little more about pruning and fertilising, but his fictional earth is rich and fertile. Lay, in this novel at least, has not, sadly, produced a very encouraging crop.
Anna Rogers is a Christchurch writer and editor.