Wearing their ethics on their sleeves, Jack Ross

Mortal Fire
Elizabeth Knox
Gecko Press, $30.00,
ISBN 9781877579530

Dear Vincent
Mandy Hager
Random House, $20.00,
ISBN 9781775533276

There was a time when I used to wait eagerly for each new YA novel by Margaret Mahy. Starting with The Haunting in 1982, she had an extraordinary run of success in this very exigent genre. Come to think of it, there was a time before that when I used to read Maurice Gee’s Halfmen of O series with something of the same feelings of fascination and awe.

I don’t know what Elizabeth Knox’s plans are (perhaps she doesn’t either), but I have to say I would be very sorry indeed if she stopped publishing teenage fantasy novels such as Mortal Fire (and its predecessors, the Dreamhunter duet, also set in her imaginary republic of Southland). I don’t think it’s any exaggeration to say that her books are every bit as good as Mahy’s and Gee’s, but with an extra edge and sophistication belonging solely to her.

That’s not to say that Mortal Fire is easy to read. In fact, there were moments in the first couple of chapters where I found it quite hard to assimilate the sheer weight of information she throws at her reader. Once the story really gets going, though, with Canny Mochrie and her step-brother Sholto’s arrival in the Zarene valley, any such obstacles melt away. This is not a book which could ever be exhausted on one run-through, though. I like a bit of a tussle with ethical responsibilities in the dreamworlds of fantasy, and Mortal Fire does not disappoint in this respect. It’s hard to imagine any other New Zealand writer so adroitly mixing a plotline based on the Pike River Mine disaster into the rest of her narrative (though I suppose one might have anticipated it from her use of the Cave Creek disaster in her previous adult fantasy novel Daylight).

Southland is a useful palimpsest for Knox: a new land which can be overlaid with just enough of the actual history of New Zealand to make it relevant to the specific aspects of our culture she wants to examine, but which is also “fictional” enough to combine them with the powerful symbolic realms of magic which interest her just as much. She does, after all, have the central duty of constructing an interesting story. And this one adds race and class prejudice to the starker issues of crime and punishment in the Dreamhunter duet. It’s worth emphasising, though, that this novel can be read and enjoyed without any knowledge of the earlier books. It is, after all, set 50 years after the events in those stories, referred to only in passing towards the end of Mortal Fire.

Mandy Hager’s new novel Dear Vincent has, by contrast, a much clearer aim: to deter young people from committing suicide. She admits as much in her own author’s note: “Why cut a life short when circumstances can change from one instant to the next? We never know what’s round the corner – that’s part of the great possibility of life.”

Does this make it propaganda rather than fiction? I have to say that I’ve never been very sympathetic to those who deny the value of literature as personal therapy for the writer (“I too have been to that dark place”, as Hager herself says), or else as a species of moral instruction for the reader. That’s not to say that a novel should resemble either a treatise or a moral tract, but I don’t see any reason per se why Hager shouldn’t set out to write a story with this imperative evident from the outset. Knox, too, wears her ethics on her sleeve much of the time, and it could be argued that her adoption of the tropes of fantasy fiction is simply because some of the issues she wishes to discuss are too complicated to reduce to order in a more realistic setting. Might one not claim, for example, that her examination of the exploitation of convicts in the Dreamhunter novels, published at the height of the Bush years (in 2005 and 2007), seems particularly relevant to the tolerance for torture and prisoner abuse characteristic of that era?

The question is, I suppose, whether Hager’s novel fulfils these noble intentions: whether it actually will engross its intended audience sufficiently to deter them from taking their own lives? Hager’s heroine, Tara McClusky, tells her own story with something of the same breathless intensity as Ellie Linton, the first-person narrator of John Marsden’s Tomorrow, When the War Began series. This gives the book a certain frenetic energy, but also has the effect of confining us to the limitations of Tara’s point of view.

And she does have a way of storming off from every confrontation, ending each scene in a tangle of fists and fury, which can wear one down after a while. To balance this, Hager has adopted the device of a series of quotations from Vincent Van Gogh’s letters to his brother Theo, especially those dealing with his own family traumas. Van Gogh also operates in the narrative as the source of a particularly anguished set of paintings which Tara is creating for her scholarship art portfolio.

I guess one of my problems with Tara as a character is the repeated insistence on just how good she is at art, how extraordinarily talented  – to the extent that the university lecturer her high school teacher shows her pictures to wants to admit her to their programme at once without further formalities! This is, to be sure, a commonplace of the YA genre (even Canny Mochrie in Knox’s book is described as a “Math genius” – though in that case her ability proves to be a mask for a more complex heritage). In context, though, I wonder if it mightn’t come across as an implication that unless you’re supernaturally gifted in some field, your life cannot be seen to be especially worthwhile.

Nor does Tara seem to be short of friends and supporters. Despite her incorrigible rudeness and unpunctuality, her teachers and employers support her patiently, and she finds it easy to win the hearts of the old people at the rest home where she works (especially old Max, the ex-Viennese philosopher who treats her almost like a daughter). She’s very good-looking, too. Max’s clever (and almost equally artistic) grandson Johannes falls in love with her the moment he meets her, and her resemblance to her beautiful elder sister Vanessa (Van) – not to mention her own mother – is so striking that various people mistake them for one another, especially when she returns to Ireland in the second part of the novel.

Mind you, I like Tara (who wouldn’t?) but I’m not sure I entirely believe in her. Her plan to travel to Tara of the Kings, just outside Dublin, and commit suicide there on the anniversary of her own sister’s suicide (by hanging herself from a statue of St. Patrick), seems too convolutedly symbolic to be especially plausible.

I guess, on the evidence of Knox’s book, young adult readers can be expected to put up with a good deal of narrative complexity in their fictions. Perhaps I’m wrong in thinking that Tara is meant to be taken entirely straight. Perhaps Hager’s intention is to portray her as a kind of unreliable narrator, flawed and self-dramatising, rather than as a kind of ideal alter-ego.

There’s a nagging inconsistency (on pp211 and 257) over whether her father is the youngest or the eldest of the three McClusky brothers that might lead us to doubt Tara’s whole melodramatic story of the trip to Northern Ireland – which might lead us in turn to doubt her account of the almost-too-good-to-be-true Max and Johannes, not to mention the rather-out-of-character reconciliation she achieves in the last pages of the book with her mother and (dying) father.

I’m not sure if it was really the author’s intention, but I found myself reading Dear Vincent, too, as a fantasy novel. It’s not an overt fantasy like Knox’s, set in an alternative universe with its own diverse history and laws of nature. But since Tara’s very survival is at stake, it seems a little hard to begrudge her an imaginary world where she’s a painter as great as Van Gogh, loved and respected wherever she goes: half genius and half heart-throb. It might all be seen as part of the process of learning to be herself.


Jack Ross’s Celanie: Poems and Drawings after Paul Celan has recently appeared from Pania Press.


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Posted in Fiction, Literature, Review, Young adults
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