Unlacing corsets, Isa Moynihan

The Girl Below 
Bianca Zander
Penguin, $30.00,
ISBN 9780143568377

The Invisible Rider
Kirsten McDougall (drawings by Gerard Crewdson)
Victoria University Press, $30.00,
ISBN 9780864737670

Houses of Stone
David L Bateman
David Bateman, $30.00,
ISBN 9781869538293

All three works are first novels, their wide variation in length, style and theme a promising sign that both publishers and Creative New Zealand (CNZ) are unlacing the restrictive corsets of setting and style that until recently have kept New Zealand fiction writing under control. Two of the authors, Zander and McDougall, received a grant from CNZ.

The Girl Below is a first novel by a journalist who has written for the New Zealand Listener, Sunday Star-Times, and Dominion Post, as well as for radio and television. Bianca Zander holds a masters in creative writing from Victoria University and the 2012 Louis Johnson New Writers Bursary. Her writing, not surprisingly, is highly accomplished, with a strong narrative drive, well-differentiated characters and vividly evoked settings. The style is an amalgam of realism, the surreal and the supernatural – demanding, but well handled.

The narrator is Suki Turner, a 28-year-old woman with a familiar problem – at least in novels. It stems from a childhood that “took place” at some emotional distance from her parents and her peers. At 18, after her mother’s death, she goes to New Zealand to find her father who left them when she was eight years old. After 10 years in New Zealand she returns to London in 2003 to revisit the scenes of that childhood, and to discover what happened in a disused air raid shelter in the back garden while a party went on in the house. The final sequence takes place in Skyros in 2003.

The back story is built up in scenes cutting from London “now” to London “then” (in 1981), and from the 10-year Auckland interlude. Suki often finds herself in a surreal situation where she is physically present and threatened by an unseen danger in a setting from the past. The suspense is well maintained as she seeks the solution to various childhood mysteries. She also seeks to satisfy “a hollow patch of hunger for something that wasn’t food”. The quest involves failed relationships, drinking parties, drugs, one-night stands and going-nowhere jobs. Some judicious editing would have avoided labouring the point by too many repeats of such scenes.

The ending is upbeat and almost fully satisfying. The minor letdown was due to the resolution (of the mysteries) being closely tied to Suki’s epiphany, an association too tenuous to sustain such a responsibility. It was as if a single kayaker were in charge of towing a container ship into harbour. The cover design, by Mumtaz Mustafa, is a perfect complement to the story.

A reviewer needs to know the genre or category of the work being reviewed in order to judge it fairly. With only 137 pages of text, The Invisible Rider does not allow for the complexity of characterisation and/or plot that one expects of a novel. It could be categorised as a novella if it had a central narrative, or as a collection of 17 linked short stories if they didn’t vary so widely in content, length and style: from glimpses to episodes to more conventional stories, and from the real to the surreal and the supernatural. The mélange of styles is similar to Zander’s in The Girl Below. Is this a developing trend or just a coincidental link with the masters in creative writing at Victoria University, of which McDougall is also a graduate?

The invisible rider is Philip Fetch, a less than prosperous lawyer, who, just like Zander’s heroine Suki, is haunted by his dead mother and feels isolated from the world around him. He asks himself what it takes to be happy and the answer proves to be very simple – even simplistic: “It didn’t take much and yet it did.” He remembers a sudden rainstorm in Barcelona many years ago: “These are the moments, just these. The world momentarily lit up in blue and us running through it, wet to the skin.”

Wind and rain are recurring motifs, as are warmth and golden light, and the moon as a watching eye. There are recurring themes of children in danger; polluted environments; animals friendly and hostile. People are “plugged in”, unconnected with the real world. Philip thinks, “We are in the days of the final thread.” As in The Girl Below, there is mention of an unsatisfied hunger. Philip and the greengrocer, who is painting his office, sing together, “calling out for something more”.  Much as I felt when I finished reading The Invisible Rider.

The five monochrome drawings by Gerard Crewdson are in a style reminiscent of Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. Illustrating the first story is a tree, its crown in the form of a howling, humanoid head blown by a strong wind. It looms over the suburban house below and may be related to Philip’s realisation that “his intentions were often thwarted by external forces”. The other drawings relate to the themes of hidden danger threatening children and birds; and the moon as a watching eye. The last drawing shows a cyclist – the “rider” – almost invisible against the urban background, pedalling uphill on a white bicycle past darkened houses under glinting stars. It must be Philip – good husband, good father, good citizen – setting off, as he says, “ ‘to push the boundaries of the outer suburbs, kind of like a pioneer’ ”. The closing story, “Titan Arum”, ties off some of the threads and answers some of the questions raised, but not the main one: what was all that about?

The layout is clean and attractive, with generous margins, but headings should be provided, especially when each of the 17 pieces has been given a title. There are a few glaring typos, such as “brought” for “bought”; “draw” for “drawer”; and clunky sentences: “a fox was getting shot at”; “the sky got lit up blue”; “he heard her standing just outside his office”. The monochrome cover, also by Crewdson, is striking and suits both title and content. However, the recommended retail price of $30 for 137 pages seems a bit steep.

On the cover of Houses of Stone, David Bateman is described as one of the founding fathers of New Zealand publishing, having worked as managing director of Collins (NZ) since 1968, and establishing David Bateman Publishing in 1980. Sadly, he died in 2011, only days after completing this novel.

If The Girl Below and The Invisible Rider are influenced by the cinematic techniques of jump cuts, time-shifts and multiple settings, Houses of Stone is a leisurely stroll down the long gallery of a country house, lined with ancestral portraits. There are exotic colonial displays, and glimpses of harrowing wartime scenes.

The opening scene, however, is a grippingly authentic account of an Atlantic convoy under attack by German U-boats in WWII. Evocation through authentic detail is Bateman’s greatest strength. His characters are less memorable, perhaps because there are so many of them, all stamped with the brand of upper-middle class Englishness. They have plain, unexceptionable names (Catherine, Andrew, Philip, Sally, Sarah, Colin, Ann etc.), own country houses, sip the best Scotch (gin and tonic or Pimm’s if they’re women), are well connected, and spend their lives re-creating England’s green and pleasant land in the farthest corners of her empire, where there are resources to be exploited by native labour, under their benign supervision. Love is gentle and romantic: eyes meet, hands are held, kisses brush cheeks and foreheads or are delivered to the tops of female heads. “Wild moments of uninhibited passion” between a husband and wife are mentioned, but not described in any detail.

The themes of family relationships, farming in Africa, and business lives in publishing in Britain and the US are at the core of the story. Philip explains to his nephew Michael that when the European powers learned of the riches to be found in Africa (gold, ivory and so on) they agreed on a peaceful allocation of the lands or, as they called them, “areas of influence”. So, from about 1885, Germany got Tanganyika, Britain got Kenya and Uganda, Zambezi became Rhodesia, and the Congo became the Belgian Congo. The British, Philip says, “were also motivated by their crusade to end the slave trade”. Black labour was, of course, a different matter since it helped “us” build railways and hack farms out of bush and jungle. A black man could now attain the status of “head farm boy”, and have his wives and children educated and medicated in the schools and clinics set up by colonisers “for their native labourers”.

The self-justification is familiar: before the Europeans saw the farming potential of the rolling hills, the tribes had been “decimated by drought and disease, so there was plenty of unused land”. The political situation that ensued will also be a familiar one to New Zealanders. Apparently, the Masai and Kikuyu had not understood the concept of “selling” land, and when the white farmers prospered, the tribes wanted “their” land back. Many before-and-after scenes vividly evoke the effects of African independence.

Catherine’s stubbornness about remaining in Africa in spite of the surrounding unrest arouses both concern and impatience among the family. Finally, in 2001, when her loyal daughter Sarah collapses physically, she agrees to leave, hoping that Sarah “will, one day, return to help rebuild Zimbabwe into a strong House of Stone for everyone”. The houses of stone are Exeter Cathedral, the Houses of Parliament in London, a country house in Devon, and the ruins of Great Zimbabwe, dating from the 12th century – and built by Africans.


Isa Moynihan is a Christchurch writer and reviewer.


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