Of one kind and another, Simon Hay

The Pounamu Prophecy
Cindy Williams
Rhiza Press, $28.50 ISBN 9781925139457

The Seer’s Wolf
Barbara Petrie
Bridgidada Press, $33.00 ISBN 9780473318154

Helen Margaret Waaka
Escalator Press, $30.00 ISBN 9780994118615

Cindy Williams’s romance The Pounamu Prophecy is the story of Helene and James finding their way back to each other after the spark has gone from their marriage.

As a romance, it’s not a book which asks readers to do much work. The characters are largely stereotypes, events require minimal interpretation, and life has clearly visible meaning. (Plot spoilers follow.) The book’s gender politics are likewise a product of the genre: it is Helene rather than James who needs to learn and change, and what she needs to learn is not to put her career ahead of his.

The most interesting, though problematic, part of the book is the mechanism by which, eventually, they work things out: Mere, an old friend of James’s mother, arrives from New Zealand to live with them in Brisbane. At a crucial point in the story, Mere sits down with Helene, and says: “Let me tell you a little of my story. It might help”. Mere is, in this sense, the narrative’s fairy godmother figure, who arrives to set things right, and the wisdom she offers them to save their marriage is Māori history. Mere grew up Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei; she was present as a child when their houses were demolished and their meeting house burned; her brother died of typhoid due to swimming in Ōkahu Bay where untreated sewage was being dumped; she was arrested at Bastion Point in 1978; and, in later life, has become a Land Court judge and works with the Waitangi Tribunal.

Mere’s story is undoubtedly the best part of the book. However, there are no macrons for any te reo Māori: not Māori but Maori, and so on. Maybe that’s a consequence of having an Australian publisher, but it’s indicative of the role of Te Ao Māori in the book, where Māori history is presented as the mechanism by which the white, middle-class marriage is to be saved.

The overall frame of the book is its Christian narrative, which is where the book’s message becomes even more troubling. What Mere comes to teach Helene is “forgiveness”; more, that forgiveness is what you need “to learn how to move forward”. Mere, dying of lung cancer, comes to Australia and gives to Helene a pounamu pendant, because God tells her this is what she must do. Later, Helene goes to Mere’s funeral wearing the pendant, and it turns out that Helene is “The one in the prophecy” who will come to help Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei – in her case, by moving to Auckland to be with James and to work as a doctor. Mere’s son explains to Helene that “In times of great need when we cannot provide for ourselves the prophecy, or whoever inspired the prophecy, sends the right person to help us”. Thank God, it turns out, for white people, who come to save the brown people.

The first thing to say about Barbara Petrie’s The Seer’s Wolf, given the description on its cover – “A mysterious and intriguing story about a werewolf in rural 1950s New Zealand” – is that it is not, in fact, about a werewolf. The book’s “werewolf” is Ralph Randal, master tailor, a recent immigrant with his family from England to Loam, on the Canterbury plains. Ralph suffers from variegate porphyria, and his symptoms make him seem wolf-like. Indeed, in the book’s concluding pages, Ralph’s hallucinations have him believing he is a wolf. But a werewolf he is not, and the project of sending us looking for one, only to disappoint, is a central part of the book’s project.

Though the book treads the boundaries of the supernatural – one of the characters is young Clover, who seems to be able to perceive the thoughts of others, and sees things happening before they do – it is, in fact, much more interested in the amazing strangeness of the mundane. We look for werewolves, where really there are fascinating medical intrigues, social drama, complex psychologies and relationships. We wonder about people’s bodies changing into wolves, whereas just as strange are bodies that do (and don’t) bleed on a monthly cycle, or develop illnesses and respond (or not) to herbal and physical remedies.

There are many secrets, locks and mysteries in the book, and many of them remain undiscovered, unopened, or unsolved. The book’s focus is on oddities, irregularities and outliers, such as Ralph and his daughter Satina’s porphyria, as well as their semi-incestuous relationship. The book is littered with odd characters who remain undeveloped – Tweed Simpson, the old man obsessed with Princess Margaret, is a good example. Many of these are introduced through Clover’s misguided hunt for a werewolf, and the scenes are generally quite good ones, though there is a kind of frustration that builds up, reading such scenes one after another, once it becomes clear that they are not helping advance the narrative at all.

The book even eschews ordinary ideas of “narrative”, as if they, too, are an artificial imposition on what, if we just paid attention to it, is the incredible ordinary. The book gets so focused on details, and the details are themselves so interesting to the characters, that they function not to further, but to distract from, the story. And this, I think, is the book’s project – to offer us a generically exciting story (“look! A werewolf!”), and then teach us that what’s really interesting, what we should really pay attention to, is not such narrative at all, but rather the details of everyday life.

There’s a lot of “wondering” by the book’s characters, especially wondering what will happen. In a sense, the book is getting its characters to do the work of the reader – after all, the question “what will happen next?” is the question that keeps us reading. Foregrounding characters wondering like this makes visible for readers the way that our focus on and desire for “narrative” artificially limits what we will find interesting and/or wonder-ful.

The book’s closing prose reaches for a kind of poignancy or transcendence, but misses. “Going to the mountains” is, throughout the book, Ralph’s fantasy for him and his daughter, the ever-postponed perfect moment he longs for. (Spoiler alert.) So, after he kills her, in the depths of his hallucinations, he of course sets off for the mountains where, increasingly exhausted, starving, and sleep-deprived, as well as still suffering hallucinations, he is eventually killed when he falls into the Crow river and is carried along the Waimakariri, all the way to the beach, where Clover finds him:

Ralph Randal, late of Great Britain, was in the jaws of that treacherous animal, the flooding Waimakariri River, its long throat rather … . Now she [the river] danced him about in a series of bobbing movements, she cut, she bruised, battered him to the accompaniment of her swollen choir.

All in all, it’s an intriguing novel, full of wonderful scenes and characters, compellingly making its case against narrative – but, for that reason, perhaps deliberately, quite unsatisfying to read.

Helen Margaret Waaka’s short-story collection Waitapu is about the people of the made-up titular small town, not too far from Palmerston North. Its structure – distinct stories, each in the voice of a particular character, but with overlapping characters, places, and moments – is especially deft at representing the web of interconnected lives in a small town, and the social labour that goes into producing small-town life. These characters are workers, in an important sense: people whose affective labour builds and sustains community. Nurses, cleaners, social workers. The book traces the lived experiences of the people of the town, their relationships with each other, giving us a sense of being let into their lives.

The book is particularly good at representing teen psychologies and language – “Eva” is probably my favourite – but also does well with older people, such as Frank’s self-disgust at his own advancing decrepitude in “Stranger’s Smile.”

A lot of the book’s emotive work is done by pathetic fallacy. For instance, the “sun bursting through low, black clouds” is about Beryl’s state of mind as she views it, more than it is about the actual weather and landscape. This works very well to support the book’s implicit argument for the co-dependency between people and their environment.

Some of the book’s distinctions between “city-people” and “town-folk” are too blunt, and the transformations that some of the characters go through seem forced. Brian’s sudden preference for his mother’s home town over his soul-crushing life in the city, brought about when he hears that his wife is pregnant, for instance; or Hilary overcoming her racism when she first holds her granddaughter. But these transformational moments are at the centre of the book: Beryl giving up her hospital cleaning job in disgust at the poor treatment of workers, and taking Rowena with her; Rowena’s sudden desire to recover her Māori identity when she returns to her marae for an auntie’s funeral.

What these transformations are moving towards, and what the book is most interested in, is the idea of belonging. In the book’s conclusion, it suggests that this kind of belonging is a virtue still available – barely, perhaps only occasionally, and definitely under threat – in the small town rather than the big one. It is a wonderful book of its kind, nuanced and deft. But “of its kind” is crucial here, because the book falls too easily into the trap of thinking that the “truth” of a small town (indeed, of any social constellation) can be captured in the psychology of its characters, without giving us a sense of the institutional and ideological organization of the society that provides the framework and sets the parameters for those characters. Without offering us, as a counterpoint to the characters’ feelings, that knowledge of the structures and histories of the society these characters are embedded in, both structures that enable as well as those that disable the possibilities of belonging, all the book can really do is mourn the idea of belonging in this moment of its supposed disappearance. At the book’s centre is the idea of belonging; to put it there, it puts to one side the history of how Waitapu came to be the way it is, how belonging came to be endangered like this, and how new modes of belonging are emerging as well.

Simon Hay lives in Wellington, and is the author of A History of the Modern British Ghost Story, and other writings about literature.

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