Telling stories, Jane Westaway

In the Neighbourhood of Fame
Bridget van der Zijpp
Victoria University Press, $30.00,
ISBN 9780864739247

Sleep Sister
Karen Breen
Eunoia Publishing, $30.00,
ISBN 9780994104755

These two new novels appear from what – not long ago – would have been opposite ends of the local fiction-publishing spectrum. One is published by a university press whose literary fiction is widely seen as its crowning glory, and whose novelists and short-story writers – think Knox, Catton, Perkins – often go on to garner glittering prizes both here and overseas. Just as often, these writers and their first works have been nurtured in an International Institute of Modern Letters workshop – a title made grander by rarely being seen unaccompanied by the adjective “prestigious”. Bridget van der Zijpp is one such writer. A couple of years after she emerged from the institute, Victoria University Press published her first novel, Misconduct. This was shortlisted for the regional section of the Commonwealth Writers’ Best First Book Prize and for the 2009 Montana New Zealand Society of Authors Hubert Church Best First Book Award for Fiction. Her latest is In the Neighbourhood of Fame.

And in the opposite corner … Karen Breen’s first novel, Sleep Sister. This is published by Takapuna’s Eunoia Publishing, of which Breen herself is a director. She drafted the novel for her masters in creative writing at Auckland University of Technology, a course and an institution the media has so far failed to bless with adjectives of any sort. Breen thanks prize-winning writer Judith White for being a “perfect mentor”. White, too, is a director of Eunoia, and later this year the press will bring out of the work of a third director, Ann Glamuzina.

Once upon a time, publications like Breen’s were lucky to reach the desks of mainstream reviewers. Books editors – and I confess to having been one of them – tended to abandon them to the ignominy of the “vanity press” pile: to be noted, perhaps, but rarely to be exposed to serious review. Thus, we editors granted the university presses and commercial publishers a de facto, if unexamined, respect. If such a publisher was willing to invest in a fiction manuscript, we thought comfortably, it had to be worth at least a few review column centimetres.

This was before several successful home-grown commercial presses were swallowed up by multinational conglomerates, and then, in 2012, Penguin and Random merged. The resulting monster would now, according to The Guardian, account for one in four books sold globally. A United Kingdom small-press founder observed that the move was a “great shame”: “[Big publishers] love to promote diversity and localism, but that’s not how it works.” And, nowadays, that is exactly New Zealand’s problem. Not only have we lost receptive commercial outlets for local fiction, those that remain demand assured sales. The emphasis now is on shifting global units. Gone are the days when big publishers allowed popular titles to subsidise those of literary merit. Their editors answer to overseas bosses, and – presumably – the questions are about profit. However enthusiastic these editors might be about a manuscript, they can be overridden by their marketing people, and the marketing people in turn by the national bookstores and their opinions – probably quite accurate – on what will and won’t sell.

The small-press founder quoted above brought out Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots and Leaves. Can you imagine taking that idea to a big mainstream publisher? “A book about grammar and punctuation? You must be joking!”

No wonder small presses like Eunoia are pushing up like mushrooms. And if some do require what’s politely known as an author’s contribution to turn a manuscript into a book, the old assumption – if a “name” publisher didn’t want it, it can’t be any good – no longer makes sense.

I have no direct knowledge of how university presses are funded, but assume their first responsibility is to make their institution look good by delivering the work of its academics into the public forum. Given the small market for such books, it’s reasonable to assume that showing a handsome annual profit isn’t a priority, and that for both reasons, they’re prepared to take the greater financial risk that literary fiction demands. So, despite the obvious differences between them, the publishers of these two novels have a crucial feature in common – a focus on indigeneity. And, at the risk of sounding like an ad for something or other, we need them more than ever before, because they’re still prepared to tell our stories.

Van der Zijpp’s story is told by three characters. Evie opens the narration in first-person singular. She’s a single mother of a teenage boy who’s drifting towards trouble. He needs a father. But her trouble is she doesn’t know which of two contenders is his father, or what to do if and when she identifies him. She’s returned to her own father’s home after his death. Over the back fence lives old flame, Jed – a musician who went on to become a one-hit wonder, and is still public property. This is the neighbourhood and his the fame of the title. Jed is now tending his garden and quietly developing his music. Evie longs to get close to him, and nips through the fence every morning with baked goodies in return for conversation. Her account takes centre-stage in the novel, but “she” often tells us too much, over-explaining feelings and events. The effect is to slow down the narration.

Jed’s wife Lauren tells her story in second-person singular – “You can’t sleep. You lie in bed.” The effect, before long, is alienating and awkward. I had no sympathy or liking for Lauren (neither does Evie), so I failed to care about the effect on her of the eventual crisis, even though it’s a wife’s nightmare.

The third voice is van der Zijpp’s most successful. It’s that of teenage Haley and, particularly at the outset, it is idiomatic and energetic, delivered in clipped sentences with no subjects. She has a problem mother, and soon a sort-of boyfriend, Evie’s son. Her adolescent blend of determination and confusion is touching.  She meets Jed in the park and they start talking. One day she asks if she can interview him for a school project. He agrees, and they escape from a pestering woman to a bush hideout of his and Evie’s youth to tape their conversation. This is the point at which van der Zijpp brings on her major theme – the desire to cut down anyone with a name, using social media as the weapon. The accusations against Jed constitute a crisis point for all three narrators. But, for the reader, the set-up has taken a long time, and the crisis comes too late to make a real impact. Finally, the novel failed to take me imaginatively out of my own neighbourhood.

Breen’s prose is controlled and, at times, vivid. It held my interest, line by line. Gilly and Marina are two young-adult sisters haunted by the accidental death of their little stepbrother Davy, when they were still children.  A death for which they still feel partly responsible. We don’t have an opportunity until the big reveal at the end of the novel to judge exactly how responsible they might be. And perhaps it’s this structure that makes the story feel somewhat clichéd. The sisters’ stories involve frequent time changes. We begin in 1973 and 74, skip forward to 78 and 79, on to 1987, then back to 1980, and so on. The gain may be insight into the characters, but the loss is coherence and reader involvement. Sleep Sister fully deserves to be called promising, but, like In the Neighbourhood of Fame, doesn’t in the end add up to more than the sum of its parts.

The curse of small and/or self-publishers was usually poor or non-existent editing, and poor design. Sleep Sister, I’m happy to say, is well edited and printed with generous margins. Its downfall is the size of its font. It’s dismayingly small, and would render the most gripping read hard going. Mine was a proof copy, but the font size seems unlikely to change at this late stage. Once our new small presses can get these aspects of publishing under control, there’ll be no stopping them.

Jane Westaway is a former co-editor of New Zealand Books.

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