Reading, writing and arithmetic, Barbara Else

Speed of Light
Joy Cowley
Gecko Press, $20.00,
ISBN 9781877579936

Teddy One-Eye: The Autobiography of a Teddy Bear
Gavin Bishop
Random House, $35.00,
ISBN 9781775537274

The ACB with Honora Lee
Kate De Goldi (drawings by Gregory O’Brien)
Longacre, $25.00,
ISBN 9781869799915

Three stars of New Zealand literature, three award-winning books, three very different approaches and audiences: how is any reviewer to manage this daunting assignment?

The most traditional read of the clutch is Speed of Light by Joy Cowley. Among numerous other achievements she has a Prime Minister’s Award for Fiction and her last novel, Dunger, was chosen as the Margaret Mahy Book of the Year 2014.  Speed of Light sits at the lower end of the Young Adult range. The protagonist, Jeff Lorimer, is at high school. His wealthy family is in crisis. Beckett, the older brother, is in a Thai prison for drug possession. Seventeen-year-old Andrea has a secret love life. Jeff’s mother works in a high-powered, travel agency as a form of denial that anything’s wrong. Meanwhile, Jeff’s intolerant and intolerable father, Winston, is involved in a dodgy property deal. Jeff himself relies on the only constant element in the universe: numbers.

The novel opens with statistics on wind velocity then moves into an image of the Lorimer house as a creature with its snout over the sea sniffing each change of the weather. Cowley’s intention is immediately clear: the story will balance fact with emotion, constancy with change. And into the story hurtles the frail figure of an old woman, blown over the defending – or isolating – walls of the house in a three-day storm. It is impossible that this could have happened. Her insights into Jeff’s family are also impossible. Who on earth is she? When she’s taken to hospital she is found to be Maisie, from a rest home far across the city. But the more Jeff finds out about her, the more the mystery deepens.

The connection between the troubled boy and troubling old woman is, on the one hand, hard to believe, on the other, utterly convincing. In her own wise way, the author beckons the reader rather like a threshold guardian of myth, encouraging and warning at one and the same time. Maisie has given her old body up to a dream keeper. This entity, now beset by the ills that flesh is heir to, gradually reveals to Jeff that what we call life is a dream and we don’t wake up till we die. Our limited senses of sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch hide the bigger reality from us. That reality is Light, the realm of the spirit and, she tells Jeff, he still has a memory of Light within him: “Go deep and find it. Hold onto it. Changes are coming.” Is this the supernatural or the spiritual? Exactly what is she saying to Jeff through the shell of Maisie? As Jeff himself says when she asks if he understands, “I think I do but I don’t.”

As he walks home puzzling, Wellington Harbour is a pond of light, water dancing with the dazzle of sun. In moments when Cowley evokes a sense of the numinous in the physical the theme of the novel stirs and, like Jeff, the reader almost grasps the dream keeper’s message. Initially astonished at Jeff’s decision to stay with his father after a scene of violence, the reader comes to see that Winston is the one who most needs help. On the deepest level, Jeff knows he must provide it. Jeff learns that he is his family’s rock and protector. By loving each one of them despite their flaws, he brings them together. Laughter and light are central images, almost one and the same, a constant that illuminates something larger than this material life.

The story has a classic shape. The mid-point crisis when Winston’s property deal falls through and his wealth vanishes is buttressed by scenes with key comments: “family is everything” then “we’re all we’ve got.” It’s a risky theme for YA fiction. More usually, the protagonist is seeking to know his or her inner self rather than how to fit into the wider world. In Speed of Light, what is important is feeling, and the moments of grace that help someone choose the right path.

Make of it what you will, it is a book that poses questions that I think will please and engage this tender age group, 12-15. We need more positive books of this nature, honouring decent male principles. At the time this review is being written, Speed of Light has been named a Storylines Notable Book 2015 and shortlisted for the LIANZA Young Adult Awards.

Teddy One-Eye is a journey down memory lane from one of our finest authors, illustrator Gavin Bishop. Bishop has also won Margaret Mahy Book of the Year, among many other awards. This autobiography of a teddy bear is a Notable Book 2015. It is Bishop’s own boyhood told through the recollection of his much-loved bear. The audience is nominally junior readers. But details like the red trike with the tray on the back, fudge cake in a lunch tin and Teddy One-Eye himself will open up myriad other recollections for the first baby-boomers and their older siblings. It is a book for grandparents to read aloud to up to 10 year olds, filling it out with their own memories, answering the many questions modern children would have. I could have wished for more illustrations. But when Teddy One-Eye has his cupboard years, as well-loved toys do when their owners grow up, Bishop does provide a gorgeous illustrated history to fill in the gaps: trivia (the first teddy museum), tragedies (the Tangiwai Disaster) and triumphs (man on the moon). Many writers of memoir try fudging the facts. This particular author with the furry chin may well exaggerate the hilarious set-piece when grandmother falls asleep in the back of a borrowed car. The car is “borrowed” again by two lads for a rowdy joy-ride. Grandma sleeps on while the car ploughs to a halt, the police arrive and the car is finally returned to its owner. But such stories grow in the telling and that’s how it should be. No-one is harmed by this retelling unless they have aching stomach muscles after the laughter.

Teddy finally remembers his first owner who died of diphtheria in some distressing scenes. In a following heavenly interlude, that child, now an angel, comforts Teddy: too much sentiment for some adult readers, I shouldn’t wonder.

But oh, the memories Teddy stirs up. My older brother had exactly the same sort of bear. It lost both eyes, which were replaced with hideous blue buttons. The head came unstitched at regular intervals. It was sewn back with all manner of thread that broke again until finally twine did a permanent job. There could never be a memoir from teddy no-head.

Kate De Goldi’s list of awards includes the New Zealand Post Children’s Book of the Year and the Michael King Fellowship. When it was first published by Gecko Press (now republished by Longacre), The ACB of Honora Lee was shortlisted for the 2013 NZ Post and LIANZA awards and was also a Storylines Notable Book. It is one of those rare books that pays re-reading. I knew there was Perry, a direct and intelligent nine-year-old getting to know Honora, her grandmother with dementia. I knew there were bitter-sweet moments. I knew it was a quiet read without strong action. I remembered the childlike yet sophisticated illustrations by Gregory O’Brien. I knew the alphabet was used in an unpredictable way as the story progressed. I delighted again in the absurdities of language and non-sequiturs that make subterranean sense and lead to revelations. What I saw more clearly on the second reading is how beautifully De Goldi has structured the piece. Forget about linear story. Overlapping layers of meaning develop almost like a Venn diagram. Perry’s parents are busy, practical mid-life adults juggling a thousand tasks while trying their best to be good parents. Like book-ends on either side of them are Perry and Honora Lee, childhood and old age. The novel is a gentle exploration of the similarities and differences between children and the aged, of what matters to those at the book-ends and what puzzles them. They see with clarity the essentials of companionship and compassion. Perry’s and Honora’s understanding of what is important gradually expands for the reader and with kindness and sympathy comes to encircle and even soothe the harried centre. In its way, the novel is similar in theme to Speed of Light. It is not what we want but what we need that matters the most.

Barbara Else’s latest novel for children, The Volume of Possible Endings: A Novel of Fontania, is reviewed on p8.

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Posted in Children, Fiction, Literature, Review
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