Tea and comfort, Sarah Laing

The Hiding Places
Catherine Robertson
Black Swan, $37.00,
ISBN 9781775536420

Where is the line between popular and literary fiction? If the latter is rich with poetic language and literary references, then Catherine Robertson has crossed it. But if popular fiction aims to entertain and to comfort above all, then Robertson has a foot on either side. Her previous three novels fall firmly in the popular fiction camp, but The Hiding Places is a compelling hybrid, a novel that attempts to hold a mirror up to the world, at the same time as delighting in eccentric English characters and mock-Tudor mansions.

Our heroine is April, a sometimes confusing moniker given that each chapter is assigned a month, and the novel straddles both hemispheres. Should she be seen as spring or autumn? For most of the novel, she is winter: dormant, self-denying, atoning through a self-inflicted sentence, believing she caused her son’s death. She wore a yellow dress on the other side of the street, and her five-year-old ran in front of a car to join her.  This detail bothered me: having recently sent three children off to school, I know how carefully they are transferred into their carers’ hands. Did it have to happen on Sam’s second day? Couldn’t Robertson have sent him under the wheels aged six? But perhaps I’m a finickity reader, and I needed to accept that detail for what it was: a heightening of pathos, a tragedy that I was trying to resist, since it’s one I fear the most. I wondered if Robertson was embracing John Irving’s writing maxim: write what you are most afraid of, because that will be where your most powerful writing resides.

My sense of irritation continued at April’s self-denial. So many delicious foods are offered to her: shortbread, blackberries, cucumber sandwiches, rabbit stew, all of which she refuses because she’s in Dante’s purgatory. Just take the damn biscuit, I wanted to tell her, and had to eat one myself, instead.

April inherits a country manor, Empyrean, named for Dante’s Paradiso. She refuses this, too, flying over to England to arrange for its sale so that she can return to her monastic existence in Circle Court in Wellington. But the Icelandic volcanoes intervene, and she is forced to stay, penniless, with a paintbrush in her hand so she can assist the honey-voiced Oran in restoring the place to its former ostentatiousness. Here we are firmly in the territory of popular culture: Grand Designs meets Antiques Roadshow.

Robertson has created a charming character in Oran – musically thwarted, drunken, a talented craftsman devoted to his junky-dementor ex-wife. The supporting cast was where I gained the most pleasure: from the leather-kilted Stiff who’d removed all his piercings to stop receiving propaganda radio waves, to the vital Lady Sunny, about to turn 90, winner of the village fair Victoria sponge competition for umpteen years, mother to many ingrate children, always stylish and never sitting still. Sometimes the characters are all too charmingly flawed, including Edward, the Only Gay In The Village and executor of the estate. I wished that Edward would find a boyfriend, rather than forever taking tea and chatting to Sunny, unravelling her memories to complement the backstory that appears in every third chapter. His plight echoes April’s, his life in limbo because of an unspecified heartbreak. Pairings are often used in this novel, both in material objects and characters. This sometimes feels contrived, an obvious literary device. The recurring theme of survivor guilt manifests itself in three characters, but this had a powerful effect, showing how guilt was a universal response to loss, and how April was not alone in her self-flagellation.

One of the most ambiguous characters is Jack, the man who lives in the woods. Is he a mythological figure? A manifestation of the Persephone story? Or a ghost from the past? Jack has a bulb-like nature, withering to brown in winter, flowering in summer. He appears only to April, teaching her about gardening, showing her how to run a knife along a dead-looking branch to see where the green sap begins. He sees the similarity to April – he’s sure there’s some green in her yet. And still, despite his allegorical nature, he is real enough to puzzle over.

Jack sees April clearly, Oran does too, and Edward and Sunny cast their judgments. The reader is frustrated by her state, but knows that she will come alive again – a blossoming is inevitable. Everything comes right in popular fiction. It sometimes does in literary fiction, too, but literary books are more curmudgeonly in their happily-ever-after. Life doesn’t always work out, and people aren’t offered cake and English manors to shock them out of their torpor. There’s something a bit predictable about being taken along on a story trajectory whose outcome seems obvious from the beginning, but that’s comforting, too, and comfort is one of fiction’s joys. This novel is packed full of frustrations and delights, vivid details and characters, and fragrant gardening analogies. I am intrigued by Robertson’s new direction and by how much literary territory she can embrace whilst still appealing to her popular audience.

Sarah Laing is a Wellington writer and illustrator.

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