Two Girls in a Boat
Victoria University Press, $35.00,
Victoria University Press, $28.00,
Tales from the Netherworld
Steele Roberts, $25.00,
One of the many pleasures of reading collections of short stories is the variety of ways in which a writer can explore the local – things, places and people from nearby. All three of these excellent collections have a keen sense of time, location and occasion, and they make for vivid reading.
Winning the 2012 Commonwealth Short Story Prize has undoubtedly given Wellington writer Emma Martin much-deserved recognition, especially since at the time of its announcement she was still unpublished. Now, with the release of her Victoria University Press collection, named for the prize-winning story, Two Girls in a Boat, Martin has not only equalled her previous success, she has surpassed it. This is an outstanding book and proclaims a writer of singular talent.
These stories, astutely observed and expertly managed, have a lightness of touch but an almost inexplicable impact. Often the intensity, gathered in a mere 15 pages or so, is startling. Her subject is most often families, those families which are unhappy each in their own way, as Tolstoy reminds us. She describes women in all configurations, mothers and daughters, daughters and fathers, mothers with sons, wives with husbands, and women with other women.
The title story describes the end of an affair. Hannah and Zoe have been living in their own costume comedy in London; free spirits enjoying the bohemian possibilities of a big city. Hannah reminisces about their op-shop clothes:
A green tam-o’-shanter, scarlet satin gloves, a Girl Scout shirt with the original badges, feather boas, a Russian army hat, the whalebone corset with the velvet ribbons – she could feel Zoe’s foot on the small of her back as she pulled those ribbons tight, remembering how they travelled halfway across London to see the new Queen of Burlesque, laughing on the tube, all blusher and lipstick, drunk on Singapore Slings with maraschino cherries ….
Returned to Wellington disconsolate, rejected and adrift, Hannah is staying at her mother’s, and Martin captures the first of many (universal but also distinctly antipodean) vignettes of mothers and daughters:
Hannah’s mother sat back on her haunches and looked at her innocently. On her first Christmas with Zoe, Hannah had sent her mother a photograph of the two of them in white sailor suits on a float at the Manchester Mardi Gras, Hannah’s scarlet lip-print on Zoe’s cheek. The float’s spangled banner read Lesbian Love Boat. Her mother had persisted in referring to Zoe as Hannah’s flatmate. And yet here she was now, trowel in hand, face smudged with potting mix, offering the gift of her acceptance clumsily and too late.
The two girls in a boat from London are replaced by a couple in a quite different boat when, in Wellington, Hannah meets and marries Ben, divorced father of two. Even at the wedding celebration, though happy and in love, she feels restless and goes walking alone to the harbour’s edge. In a numinous moment she catches sight of a baby seal: “Hannah wondered how such a small pup had ended up here, far from its colony. Perhaps it was lost; yet there was something jubilant about the way it flipped and corkscrewed, its streamlined body rippling … .”
In “Six Grey Arches”, a girl in her mid-teens catches a bus in Balclutha to be billeted in the big smoke, forced to work as a skivvy for the icy Mrs Parker. The unnamed girl is pregnant, sent away from home to have a baby, to be adopted out as if part of a dream that never happened. Her mother collects her to take her home:
There is a long silence.
“You have to put it behind you now,” she says quietly.
You know that.
“I know that,” you say.
And you will. You will let your parents drive you home, down the snaking road through the wet, green hills, across the bridge with its six grey arches, and you will not speak about it, and you will not look back.
It will be just as if it never happened at all.
The theme of enforced separation recurs. In “Visiting Edie”, Luisa, now an adult, attends the funeral of her birth-mother who gave her up and went on to have other children. It is the wife of half-brother Kit who informs Luisa of the death, but even after all these years no-one welcomes the stigmatised innocent.
One of the strongest stories is “All the Girls”, which begins as a wry portrait of Justine, a suburban mother preparing a birthday party for her daughter Grace. A jolting shift in the plot turns playful comedy of manners into unexpected tragedy, and Martin memorably charts the disintegration of the family, and the child’s shift of allegiance from her guilt-ridden mother to her less alienated father. Father and daughters also feature vividly in “Tekapo”, a story about a soldier returning from WWII service to a child, Ida, who doesn’t know him. The family is thrown into crisis by the premature birth of twins but, in the process of recovery, bonds are strengthened and the natural order resumes.
Each of these stories is poised, insightful and rich in detail, and the sequencing is well-judged, finishing strongly with “In the Below” and “Te Marama”; the former about Agnes, a girl from a poor family, who covets marbles to play in the schoolyard but there is no money to buy them. Filching some from the satchel of her schoolyard nemesis, Vaughan, she hides them under her house, counting and marvelling at them like the forbidden trove they are.
“Te Marama”, the concluding story, is again on a problematic theme: a woman prisoner, under cell-watch for self-harming, is in penance for scalding her little son, Piripi, for wetting his bed. An elderly prison visitor offers well-meaning counsel and constancy, and a devoted foster mother and a teacher nurse the boy back to confidence. Chance alters the chain of events and, as often happens in this collection, things take a different turn. Martin’s stories are lucid, unsparing, often grim, but they never despair that there is no more to discover. This collection is a remarkable start for a writer already in her stride.
Tough, Amy Head’s debut collection of stories set on the West Coast, is also an exceptional achievement. Alternating – as if purl one, plain one – six stories are set in the mid-19th century and six in the present. Opening with “West Coast Road”, a lively account of the rivalry between Haast and Arthur Dobson to survey and build the link roads from the isolated coast, Head weaves her research effortlessly into the often spellbinding narratives.
The colonial stories are splendidly vivid, and Head persuasively evokes the frontier dangers of the gold-mining life. In “The Sinner”, Duncan, a boy of only 12, leaves the house of his brutal father for an even more dangerous life in the diggings. In “Flood”, Constable O’Brien risks his life to warn settlers of impending inundation as the Grey breaks its banks. Head has a thrifty narrative style, sometimes cinematic in its assurance:
The flotsam started small, with scraps of brushwood, grip poles and spades. White water became full-bodied and heavy. The river scaled its banks, no longer containable. Bodies floated: bovine, canine, and equine. Even human – crossing Stillwater, O’Brien was able to reach into the current and grab hold of a boy’s body by the collar. He guided it around, laid it across his horse’s back, and carried it out. To his surprise, when he reached the bank and the horse propelled them up onto dry land, the boy began coughing.
The title story is a 10-page picaresque about a young man, ironically named “Tough”, who fancies the brutal exploits of the Burgess Gang, bushrangers stealing gold from the diggers along the river. His life is a series of near-misses, as he dreamily moves from one precarious situation to the next, hoping perhaps to find identity in danger and misadventure.
The contemporary stories highlight life on the Coast and the genuine eccentricity and generosity of the people living there – not an exercise in regional quirkiness, but a recognition of the unconventional lifestyles of many of the characters. In “Duck Pluck” and “The Kitchen Pig Smokes the Mouseketeers” Head deftly explores the tensions and consolations of relationships and the vitality of tavern camaraderie. And in “Camping”, a young woman describes a holiday disrupted by flood warnings and the volatile time she is having with Nathan, her new boyfriend. They squabble, and he confronts her with her shortcomings to which she opines: “All in all, I didn’t think he was being fair. How could I have known which parts of myself to hide until I knew which parts he’d disapprove of?”
“Visitors”, the closing story, is compellingly compact and matter-of-fact in tone as it describes Leanne, a young mother, and her son coming to terms with her rapidly changing fortunes when her husband is seriously injured in an industrial accident. Head uses understatement to marvellous effect; Tough is tenderness by other means.
The stories in Jo Randerson’s Tales from the Netherworld are like metaphysical fables: sorties through a portal or looking glass that reveal new truths beneath familiar surfaces. Full of satiric invention and with an often vehement comedy, the collection conjures characters struggling with inconvenient truths about being alive. It is about things nearby, but mischievously out of reach.
Often her characters develop prophetic gifts, like Ivan, a small boy who not only sees dead people, he screams on their behalf. Aware that he has become a frightening nuisance, even to his own mother, he confines his screams to silence “and although … he twists and writhes and contorts and agonises, he no longer annoys anyone. And everyone continues to be happy and calm. And the dead’s message remains unheard.” In “The Great Balance”, a sea diver plumbs extreme depths to retrieve a dead boy, only to return a stranger to his wife, while in “The Sheep, the Shepherd”, a Christchurch man has a breakdown at a Paris airport and lives in limbo in the terminal, waiting for a sign that never comes.
Randerson’s mystified mystics rail at the absurdity of things, rather like Kurt Vonnegut characters, except that here they have revelations in Whanganui. Or, like Anna, resisting a Kiwi paradise of buzzy bees and marmite, pipis and pauas, they remember being born in a place “that felt free, a place to be free in”, and realise “something had gone terribly, horribly wrong here.” These intense, ferociously funny soundings from the netherworld have much to report.
Murray Bramwell lives in Adelaide and is a theatre reviewer for The Australian.