Cliquety-clique? David Hill

Twice Upon a Time
James Norcliffe
Puffin NZ, $17.00,
ISBN 9780143770671

Into the White
Joanna Grochowicz
Allen and Unwin, $19.00,
ISBN 9781760293659

Taupo Blows!
Doug Wilson
Bateman, $19.00,
ISBN 9781869539672

Those accusations from a few months back – the ones which told us New Zealand literature is a cliquey little club, rampant with mutual back-scratching and buttock-wiping, with the Book Council and New Zealand Books among its most self-serving cliquettes: am I the only one who found them a tad same-old, same-old?

Peter King’s claims did bring temporary titillation, along with anatomical inventiveness: The New Zealand Book Council apparently enjoys hands being inserted into some unexpected orifices. (WARNING: Do not try this trick with your own sponsor.) But allegations that our literary establishment – and I’d be grateful if someone could actually identify that organism for me – is an exclusive, clandestinely-plotting cabal seem to rise like bubbles from the swamp (thank you, Denis Glover) every few years, pop noisily and noisomely, then evaporate, leaving only a yawn behind.

I sympathise with Mr King’s frustration. All authors feel that way in an unappreciative world. I congratulate him on his boundary-shoving use of the word “fact” in sentences starting “The fact is … .” (miaow). I wish him the best of luck in his own writing career, which I’m sure will take off once he learns the difference between “its” and “it’s” (miaow, miaow).

I’ll also note that, as a self-serving contributor to New Zealand Books, the most eviscerating reviews I’ve ever received have come from other back-scratchers in its cabal. I watched myself hurl a copy of a damning notice at the wall once, while thinking “Hey, I must write about that, some time.”

I suggest that the whole hypothetical scenario of closed shops and orifice-massaging is pretty irrelevant for most authors, most of the time. We do a job. We’re lucky that it’s a job which gives us “Oh, yes!” moments – and “Aw, no!” ones. We get on with a craft which, if we’re lucky, sometimes lifts into art. The thought of jealously-walled cliques may niggle at our minds when we’re trying to decide where to try and place the finished work, but it’s over the horizon while we’re working on it.

I’m moved to such utterances of the bleeding obvious by the fact that these three junior narratives are all industrious, agenda-free … stories. There’s nothing about them which I can imagine threatening or flattering any group. The only plots they seem interested in are the ones that start on page one.

So let’s begin with James Norcliffe. It’s not just that this poet, short story writer, children’s/YA author, editor, tutor is versatile; he’s also at least accomplished and frequently outstanding in what he writes. I really should dislike the very pleasant chap more.

Twice Upon a Time is underpinned by friendship and fun. If this sounds like a Dr Libby bromide, it’s also a good formula in any fiction for kids. So is the book’s pre-pubertal, pre-lapsarian world, where a girl can almost pass for a bloke with strange colour preferences.

Ginny is drowsing in her hammock one afternoon when a singular small figure appears beside her. Then she hears that her grandfather, “Pop by name and pop by nature”, is missing. Straightaway, the suburban world and a magical one just around the corner merge promisingly. Parallel universes shimmer; an autumnal tree swells with pink blossom; left and right are juxtaposed; Don’s Dairy mutates into Nod’s Diary.

It’s fast, persuasive, engaging. It’s also neatly placed in the contemporary world: single-parent family; laptop; sugar rushes; a hint of dementia; a touch of New Age channelling.

A quest shapes, with a growing cast of eccentric seekers, a couple of whom never get beyond caricatures. Loyalties form. They’re challenged, too; Ginny’s journey is demanding as well as enchanting; sinister as well as sunny. She’s an appealing protagonist: responsive, bolshie, vulnerable. Digger Dagger of the red beanie and matching long johns becomes the fantastic friend who always seems likely to morph into something else. (No spoilers were harmed in the making of that sentence.)

Internal stories matter enormously in Twice Upon a Time. They unsettle and strengthen, stroke and startle. Riddles are portents, and also potent. You’ll enjoy the Nod/Sod pairing. I enjoyed King Bathwater, on whom someone – drum-roll, please – pulls the plug.

This all suits a book energised by verbal invention, springy dialogue, existential questions, an occasional surfeit of adjectives, and the special logic of childhood. Norcliffe makes rewarding use of language’s sheer improbability. Does a spitting image really spit? Why does one go back to the drawing-board, and not to the ironing- or diving-board. What’s a quibble?

A funfair, along with a realisation that “One and One make One”, lead to a finale in which the good end happily while the off-beat end transformed. Lamingtons rule, along with alternative facts. Kids can handle things: a point made without any lecturing. Warm, witty, and occasionally rather wise, with a nice leavening of mischief.

Joanna Grochowicz’s first book couldn’t be more different from Norcliffe’s. Her story of Robert Falcon Scott and his disastrous, intermittently dysfunctional polar expedition is bolted to reality.

Another book on Scott? For young audiences, it’s necessary. I asked a class of 10-year-olds recently who Edmund Hillary was. Just one hand went up. “Is he the man who climbed the big snowy mountain?” Very cute. Also a reminder that our icons need regular refreshing. Into the White makes a useful contribution to that process.

Grochowicz is aiming at a slightly older audience than Norcliffe or Doug Wilson. And this is creative non-fiction. Thoughts and emotions are conjectural, but solidly connected to situations. Dialogue is invented, not always successfully. Even allowing for public school Edwardian upper lips, chaps declaim as much as they speak: “You need to take yourself in hand, Bill”; “Such fine men. Such dreadful weather”; “For the first time, our goal seems in sight”. OK, they’re British, but, as conversation, it labours.

The author suggests this is a Scott for the 21st century, with “humanity … curiosity … eagerness to learn from others”, and she has a good go at getting inside his complex head. She starts in December 1910, with photographer Herbert Ponting developing and retching on the Southern Pacific Ocean, and ends 15 months later on the Ross Ice Shelf, as Scott makes his final, famous diary entries, and allows his mind “to dwell on humble pleasures – the sparkle of his wife’s laughter, his son’s warm breath on his cheek, the first bite of an apple plucked from the branch”.

Those lines indicate one problem with this meticulous story. When Grochowicz keeps to narrative and physical details, she writes forcefully. When she goes in for soliloquy or philosophy, her prose swells and postures. Adjectives come in pairs; there are maladroit cadences and constructions: “Against all odds, Scott’s men have won against nature’s foul temper.”

However, she manages a big diverse cast, including ponies, seals and cetaceans, capably. Information is abundant and often intriguing: the dogs will respond only to commands in Russian; sunburn is an issue; it takes an hour to force open frozen sleeping bags. An insistent present tense keeps things striding along.

It’s a comprehensive coverage, from Terra Nova’s shaky landfall through the initial Oates/Scott frictions, evening lectures and Midwinter Festival at Cape Evans Base, the penguin egg expedition, the hopes, miseries and disintegration of the final push to the South Pole. There’s abundant drama to inform and engross new readers.

Sketches and maps, a useful series of appendices, plus black-and-white photos of luminous ice cliffs, a camp cook in chef’s white hat and graphic frostbite, will appeal as well. Robert Falcon and his lads would have nodded in stoic approval.

The format of Taupo Blows! isn’t too impressive: stiff binding; splintery spine, glassy paper, garish cover. The contents? Doug Wilson is a biotechnology consultant, which sounds a whole lot more impressive than “author”. One should never quote media releases, but this one says: “he has never lost his love of writing – stories were his first love, and he proved to be faithful”. Clunk. Then there’s the dedication: “To kids everywhere … . Be cool. Do your homework. It makes life easier.” Ouch.

Sam and Rachel are by themselves at home beside Lake Taupo when Mount Ruapehu erupts. (Just five minutes from first steam to apocalyptic sundering? Volcanologists please sit on your hands.) One “rocket-like lava spout” lands a small, smoke-breathing creature on their deck. Others follow, including one who checks on whether they’ve done their homework. It does seem to prey on the author’s mind.

Mythological or geological beings called Guld, Zephyra, Eerie Hoo, The Controller et al, whisk them to Mount Ngauruhoe, and a quest “Under-the-Mountain”. Beasties named rockadongos and terrydyls feature. So do a lot of caverns and tunnels with zig-zag patterns, sapphire flowers, a transparent monster, an underground lava river, more. Once again, kids can do anything, which is always good. There’s a surge of climactic tension – will the dam hold? will the snowman melt? – before a cosy ending.

So plenty happens, helped along by two spirited kids and a lively dog. But, in nearly every area, this novel needs a lot more skill, via a lot more work. The narrative is jerky, clotted with peripheral detail and author intrusion. What should be major moments get only perfunctory treatment. Clichés abound: “massive plume”, “loved ones”, “smack bang”. Colloquialisms are dated: “tough little tyke”, “of course not, silly”, “boy, I bet”, “worried sick”. The writing is generally clogged and repetitive: “the huge cataclysmic crash of the massive explosion”. There’s a disconnect between the physical drama/melodrama and the psychological repercussions: “The lake’s boiling and the mountain’s exploded and we want to get away.” You seldom feel with or for the characters and, except for the two young protagonists, Wilson doesn’t seem to feel much for them himself.

I’m going to this length because – well, partly because I want to make it clear I’m not cabal-cementing. Also, because the whole execution of this story suggests an admirable, well-intentioned, sensitive and sensible man, highly qualified in other fields, who has decided to dash off a kid’s story. He’s dashed off several others, actually. The result here never rises above apprentice work. Editors and others should have served him bettter.

Note the prices of these three. A good effort by (mostly) New Zealand publishers to produce a (mostly) pleasing package while keeping the cost down. Buy them soon, before the authors are sucked into a self-serving clique.

David Hill is a New Plymouth writer and reviewer, whose new YA novel, Flight Path, is published by Puffin.

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