Landscape with Solitary Figure
Vintage, $30.00, ISBN 9781775535881
Shonagh Koea’s novel Landscape with Solitary Figure is concerned with themes of domestic trauma, emotional unhappiness, withdrawal and solitude, written with a careful attention to detail which mires the reader in the mindfully self-aware moment, producing an intense reading experience which is also deeply unsettling. It is a stately novel, its movements measured but never ponderous, pausing often to think and reflect, offering up a series of tableaux – not always in chronological order – as if they were a series of paintings in a gallery before which one pauses to admire and contemplate, the fuller narrative being formed somewhere in the spaces and connections between them.
Indeed, it is a very picturesque book in many ways; drawings intersperse the chapters, art and art objects are central to the characters’ professional and personal lives (many of them being either collectors or dealers), and composition and perspective, as well as posing and framing, are important structural ideas for the novel.
Landscape with Solitary Figure begins by introducing the solitary life now led by Ellis, the story moving forward and back in time to explain why, moving again and again from confronting to backing away from the past. She lives in a little bungalow close to the sea, with a beloved garden and a single chair set precisely next to a small table in the gazebo: another is not needed. Setting out the charms of the single life, Ellis adamantly asserts this necessity as virtue, not always entirely convincingly, undercut as her narrative always is by her ever-present anxiety.
Before she lived in this house she lived in another, in which she was scared, and in which she met a man who delighted in tormenting her, most cruelly and sadistically. The moment of their meeting is one she replays in her mind, over and over, seeking the clues to what came next: an abusive relationship which left her emotionally traumatised, physically damaged and financially ruined.
Ellis is a character of great composure and poise, somehow retaining her dignity even when her situation is at its most degrading, an assertion of selfhood which stands against the power wielded by her abuser and which is the key to her survival and escape. Her dignity is moving, as is her attempt to analyse the story she tells with a careful and objective detachment, seeking cause and reason and truth out of the chaos of cruelty and sadness.
The distance which she keeps between herself and the past, between herself and the world, as a means of defence and protection, also has the effect of distancing the reader and diluting the emotional impact of the novel. The retrospective stance from which Ellis narrates the story – in the past tense and the third person – separates the reader from the immediacy of events in time and space, and Ellis’s out-of-sequence recall of her memories means that there’s little development of narrative momentum (though of course it has a logic in the process of her own, erratic, emotional recovery). It’s the insidious development of the abusive relationship which is thus missing from Landscape with Solitary Figure, the account of the grooming process which ensnares her. Without that immediacy and momentum, it’s not really clear what attracted Ellis to her tormentor in the first place, or what holds her in thrall as he abuses her. Ironically, in Koea’s novel these are questions which Ellis also struggles to answer herself.
Louise O’Brien is co-editor of New Zealand Books and a Wellington reviewer.