Waiting for Elizabeth
Tangerine Publications, $30.00,
Alan Duff is one of our most esteemed writers. His best-known novel Once Were Warriors was made into a film; his work is the subject of university theses and scholarly essays. I’ve long been a Duff fan, not least since Szabad (2001) brought to life the struggle of Hungary – my birthplace – against the communist state and the Soviet Union.
In his latest novel Frederick’s Coat, Johno and Shane, mates since school days, struggle with damaging circumstances. Aged 13 at the start of the book, Johno is being raised by his father in Balmain (Sydney) and believes his mother is dead. He expects to carry on the family tradition as professional criminal, for the choice, his grandfather says, is between growing up to be “wage-earning nobodies”, or “we can go out and get some of the action”.
Research suggests that, for many Maori, life in Australia, where they are sought-after as hard workers, is a refreshing change from New Zealand, where there are constantly negative stories about them in the media. But Duff shows how tough it is to escape the past – whether the harmful after-effects of colonial dispossession or the world of cons and drugs. Johno is for a time successful in making a fresh start; Shane is not.
Frederick’s Coat centres on one of Johno’s children – his vulnerable “tribeless” son – and the culpable adults in his life. Mother Evelyn (not Maori) abandons Danny, sensitive and artistic, aged four. Descriptions in the book of adults bashing each other up – “fists on flesh and bone”; “cries of pain” and “blinding with acid” – are not nearly as gruelling as those of emotional suffering, particularly the wrenching details of Evelyn leaving home. On anti-depressants, she feels she’ll “implode” if she doesn’t go, but doesn’t bother explaining her departure to Danny.
It is three years before Danny sees his mother again. Johno meets his mother (she is not dead after all) twice in 35 years. Another stomach-wrenching scene is when Johno finds his mother – only to lose her again when she is turned away by his father. Johno tries to protect his mother – he runs after her, wanting to talk – but words are useless in this world ruled by fists and drugs. Family bonds are broken but ties of mateship are strong. The book starts and ends with the friendship between Johno and Shane. Frederick’s Coat is not an easy read but worth the effort. Though Johno, and some of the adults, do their best for Danny – they try to foster his artistic talent and help him cope with bullying – their efforts are doomed to fail. The early losses cannot be undone.
Stevan Eldred-Grigg’s new novel also brings to mind the resilience of children. Why does one child survive an abysmal upbringing and another succumb to depression, drug addiction and the like? Bangs draws on the author’s working-class childhood, with the central character – Meridee – based on one of his sisters. Meridee is sexually abused by two, perhaps three, of her brothers and one of her sisters may also be abused. I lost track of what the ghastly brothers were up to because I kept hoping Bangs was going to be a book about a person who is able to fend off the abuser and leave the hurt behind, going on to have a great life, uncrushed by the dodgy start. Bangs is not that book.
The novel is a sequel of sorts to Oracles and Miracles, Eldred-Grigg’s best known novel, with some of the characters from the earlier work appearing in Bangs. Eldred-Grigg is a social historian as well as a novelist, and Bangs is a history issues-driven novel, with the Welfare State almost a character. We view Christchurch and New Zealand from the 1960s until the 1980s through the experiences of a case study – the unfortunate Meridee. She undergoes corporal punishment at school; she goes on the pill; she participates in dreary rounds of drinking and fucking; she leaves school; she drifts into boring work; and so on.
While each segment, usually a phase in Meridee’s life, is engrossing enough, in its entirety the novel reads like a recitation of the ills of Kiwi families. In The Forrests by Emily Perkins, another recent novel about growing up in a Kiwi family with troubled relationships, the greater emphasis on the interior life of the main character, rather than on the times in which she is living, involves the reader more.
Another quibble is with the use of Holocaust imagery (the smell of burnt hair and gas chambers) to illustrate Meridee’s state of mind. But there is plenty to admire in the book, the portrayal of Meridee’s mother Gwendolyn in particular. When allowed her own voice, she balances Meridee’s. Gwendolyn is a survivor. With a little help from the Welfare State (and the jug cord for dealing with recalcitrant behaviour), she keeps eight kids healthy and gets them educated and off her hands. And still has time to read The Hobbit to Meridee.
Gwendolyn’s attitude to the incest going on under her nose is riveting. She is aware of it, yet is not – in the way that one can know painful facts yet not know them. In one revealing incident, Gwendolyn tells Meridee to “stop it”. It is up to Meridee to make her brother stop the abuse, not up to the brother to stop inflicting it. Some readers might find the mother complicit in the abuse. Bangs has evocative descriptions of the sights, smells and activities of Kiwi families: Janola, fish and chips, Christmas dinners, boozing, ocean-beach outings, to name a few. But the book cannot escape the straitjacket of the abuse-victim theme or the social history issues framework.
After two novels about miserable childhood, it is a relief to turn to something lighter – the violence and intrigue of 16th-century Tudors. Waiting for Elizabeth is based on the notion that Queen Elizabeth was not the virgin queen but had a child, fathered by her cousin Thomas Butler, known as Black Tom. This child is growing up on one of Black Tom’s estates amid speculation that one day the Queen will risk death and visit Ireland to meet her offspring.
Counterfactual history seems so implausible because we know how things turned out and think that’s the way they had to turn out. If you are irritated, rather than entertained, by counterfactual history, there is also regular Irish history in the book to appreciate. The devastation wrought by the Tudors as they tried to take over the country is of particular interest for New Zealand readers. Irish history has many parallels with our own. Confiscation of land and property was a crucial tool in the English quest to conquer and subdue Ireland. Two centuries later, the colonisation of Ireland was clearly in the minds of officials in 19th-century New Zealand as they drew up legislation to confiscate Maori land.
Waiting for Elizabeth is an entertaining coming-of-age and search-for-identity story. There are two contenders (Piers and Arthur) for being the son of the Queen and Black Tom. Tension is created as Arthur, the protagonist, searches for the truth about his origins and tries to sort out where his loyalties lie. At the start, still “in petticoats”, Arthur is a scullion, dreaming about being “noble-born”. Later he identifies as both English and Irish. Aged 17, he catches a glimpse of the Queen at last, “sitting sideways on a white horse”. She smiles and nods but doesn’t meet his eager gaze. The adult Arthur becomes disenchanted with the Queen, with possibly dire consequences. But I can’t give any more away.
Details of daily life abound: the upper classes dine on quail, crab and spit-roasted lamb; there are Papist plots and jostling, heckling crowds. As a child, Arthur “kicks a pig’s bladder round the street”. Later, he takes up falconry and archery, and learns to read Latin, Greek, Gaelic (“an almost treasonous tongue”) and English. For entertainment, Utopia by Thomas More is on offer; and sex with Meadhbh. When she comes close, his “bod” rises. Gaelic words and expressions enliven the book. There are instances of violence (people are beaten to death; some get their thumbs chopped off), but life in Rosier-Jones’s Tudor Ireland is easy and pleasant in comparison with the family life depicted in the other two novels under review.
Ann Beaglehole is a Wellington reviewer and historian.