Loosening stiff upper lips, Charlotte Graham

Leap of Faith 
Jenny Pattrick
Black Swan, $38.00,
ISBN 9780143770916

Good Sons
Greg Hall
Mary Egan Publishing, $32.00,
ISBN 9780473383787

It seems there are two major challenges for any author wanting to write about New Zealand in some of its formative historical periods. One is the research. The other is conveying the spirit of tough people who lived tough lives, when often these were men and women of few words. The tendency of our forebears not to respond to even the most brutal of conditions, or to utterly cavernous moments of grief and loss, with anything other than stoicism, has bred an odd national reluctance to talk about our problems that persists, in some forms, to the present day. It presents an even bigger challenge to writers of historical fiction, who need to convey moments of hope and anguish among the austere, taciturn Pākehā of 1907 or 1917 without breaking character or boring us to tears. On screen, it can be done with sideways looks: the raise of an eyebrow, or a mumbled syllable. But Jenny Pattrick, author of Leap of Faith, and Greg Hall, in his book Good Sons, have set themselves a difficult task to convey it through text.

Both authors handle the historical material with utter aplomb, going, in both cases, beyond merely “good research” to reach an almost laid-back mastery of time periods they know inside and out. Pattrick’s book takes on a fairly unknown story for most New Zealanders: the construction of the Makatote viaduct, part of a new railroad joining two parts of the North Island’s main trunk line, just after the turn of the 20th century. A wide cast of characters includes railway and mining workers of various stripes, their families, townsfolk and prohibitionists, and one campily evil preacher. Pattrick is an accomplished writer of historical fiction already, best known for The Denniston Rose, and her handling of the historical content is as deft as the man she describes carrying dynamite sticks to the work site under his coat to keep it warm. She’s gentle, but confident, and the book made railroad building a damn sight more interesting than it ever was in New Zealand high-school history lessons.

Hall brings 40 years of knowledge about, and research of, New Zealand’s involvement in WWI to the table in his novel Good Sons, and it shows. His ability to tell so many different versions of the same story – young men leaving for war – is a testament to the breadth and depth of his decades of reading. Both Hall and Pattrick are simple, clean writers. There are no fancy or literary tricks, but there’s a sureness to the prose that makes it accessible, rather than overly simple.

In the matter of telling stories of hard-to-reach characters, the two books diverge. Pattrick’s Leap of Faith contains a cast of hundreds, and the story of love, lives, death, scams and intrigue on the Central Plateau is a rollicking, theatrical one. It suffers from pacing problems; there are more deaths in the book than an episode of CSI, but they often seem rushed, and no one responds much to them. A lack of texture seems to give the book’s most poignant moments equal billing with a Christmas tramping trip, for example, which doesn’t add a huge amount to the plot.

Pattrick does a wonderful job of describing the dour, harsh conditions of tent-city living for the railway workers, and I wondered whether her lack of emphasis on the deaths in the book was supposed to reflect that the characters couldn’t afford to treat death as anything special: it was a brutal fact of life. That old chestnut of Presbyterian stoicism doesn’t seem quite enough of an explanation for the lack of feeling the book engendered, though. I’m reminded of Arthur Meek’s play On the Upside Down of the World as an example of a story that connects place to people in a way that is heavy with emotion, while remaining true to the people of the time.

The book’s final denouement is heavily signposted throughout the story, and the climax didn’t quite feel equal to the amount of anticipation that had built. In addition, the events of the ending left me a little unclear as to the motivation of a central character, young Billy Cameron, which was hard when so much seemed to turn on his actions.

There are some cracking good characters in the yarn. Mrs. Grice, the snippy prohibitionist, is interesting in her foibles, especially as more layers to her are revealed. And the big baddie, con-artist and fake preacher, Gabriel Locke, is a villain straight out of Disney, and just as much fun. The young lovers are a sweet couple, and an opportunity for Pattrick to introduce Māori characters, without which the story would have felt lacking. As an aside, neither Pattrick’s book nor Hall’s use the macrons on Māori words; I suppose this was a decision of historical accuracy as they were not in common usage at the time, but it feels odd, the same way you’d stumble as a reader on a continual misspelling. I wonder whether their editors couldn’t have just popped them in, the same way Philippa Gregory wouldn’t spell words incorrectly just because the Tudors did.

Pattrick’s book is an enjoyable read, overall, and long-time readers will be excited by her inclusion of her beloved character, Rose. The only place I really became stuck was her use of flash-forwards, which felt unnecessary, at times even clunky. I struggle to think of a situation in any novel, for example, in which the sentence, “I am finding it difficult to bring Brennan and Rose Scobie into the narrative”, would ever feel as though it worked. And making sense of the book’s ending in 1907 felt too reliant on information conveyed in the present-day segments. The book didn’t need them for the 1907 story to shine, and would have worked better without.

For Hall, the question of the inner lives of characters with stiff upper lips is answered differently. Good Sons follows the stories of three best friends from Oamaru who are coming to the end of their high school careers and deciding whether to enlist to fight in WWI. The book’s first 40 or so pages are disappointing; I understood it is important to set up the boys’ lives and families in good times so we know what is at stake in bad, but conversations feel one-dimensional and characters hard to access. All that changes once the young men start to be recruited for war, and Hall hits a vein in his nuanced understanding of what drove 17-year-olds – children, really – to sign up for battle. The stupid reasons are the most poignant: the boy who is running away from something his parents would have been angry at him about; the one who’s trying to impress a father who’ll never give him the love he wants. Hall shines a new light on the culture of social pressure and manipulation that led young men to enlist; particularly awful is way the prestige of the school’s top rugby team is tied, by adults, to an assumption that its members will be eager to serve. Hall intersperses chapters with nationalistic, jingoistic newspaper clippings that starkly offset the reality of young men who don’t know what they’re doing, and realise too late that they’re in too deep. He accesses the feelings of the book’s main character well, while still conveying that the young man doesn’t quite understand them himself. I cried at the book’s first death, at Frank’s utter bewilderment about it. The book is told from Frank’s perspective, so the decision to print just some of Frank’s thoughts with full-paragraph indentation seemed frustrating. If the whole book is Frank’s thoughts, then what are the indented parts? His very deep thoughts? I couldn’t figure it out.

But Frank is a strong narrator, and his time training for war and travelling to the front is Hall’s strongest work. The utter misery and senseless death involved in those pre-battle periods was new to me, and the slow burn of young men’s transformations from children into little soldiers, men without the experience to be men, is heartbreaking.

The biggest challenge for this book is something the author cannot help. Its strengths lie in its descriptions of, and stories about, the recruitment and training process and the preparation for battle on the front. Once the men reach the thick of the fighting, it’s hard to shake a sense that we’ve seen this before. Of course, the plethora of books and films and television about the heat of battle doesn’t mean we can’t have more, but it does confront an author with both finding a way to move us, and to bring something new, story-wise, to the table. On both counts, Good Sons falters a little, though I struggled to see what the author could have done about it. In terms of plot, I would have been perfectly happy to have the book end as the men reach the front, but I understand it would have been storytelling suicide to finish a book about the lead-up to Passchendaele before we actually reach Passchendaele. And, as for moving us: characters die, as they do in war, but some of the book’s earlier deaths, in more unusual circumstances, are much more of a wrench. I fear watching so much increasingly graphic war-related violence on screen has inured us to descriptions of it. Hall makes the deaths gory, certainly: probably just beyond the limits of what I would have preferred, though it does serve the purpose of reminding us there is no glory in war. But, even the descriptions of a shelling victim, or a bayoneting, did not show me things I had not already seen.

This is a problem not only for Hall, but as we crawl through the last leg of WWI commemoration books, fiction and non-fiction, it is a problem for everyone writing about it. What stories can we tell that are new about these battles, or must writers find a new quirk or gimmick each time? I’m not sure of the answer, but surely descriptions of graphic battlefield violence eventually offer diminishing returns in terms of impact. Hall’s depiction of what war does to young men is a significant achievement, though, and that, combined with the book’s earlier success in describing the recruitment process and the social conditions that enabled it, means the book should be a compulsory read in New Zealand high schools.

The ending involved a curious decision by a character, as in Pattrick’s book, but, in this case, Frank’s actions make sense. There is a mature moment of recognition that sometimes you have drifted so far away from your old life that it can be difficult to find a way back to it at all. A flash-forward to the present day was probably not needed, although I think they rarely are. To his credit, Hall manages to keep the time jump understated and restrained.

What is striking about both books is the youth of their core casts, and the restrained way it is noted by both writers, but never milked. In the time both books are set, being young meant something different to what it does now. For the men and women carving infrastructure out of unyielding land, for the young men leaving the First XV for rifles and grenades, being 14, or 20, or 25, meant you were old enough to shoulder the responsibility of a nation, and your life was no longer your own. Both books subtly make the point that it is breathtaking, really, what we expected of our young: sacrifice, even to the death. And both books are worth reading in search of new blueprints for what it means to be a New Zealander, especially a young or a poor one, to force a challenge to our assumptions of the national loyalty we expect.

Charlotte Graham is a journalist and broadcaster recently based at The New York Times in Hong Kong. 

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Posted in Fiction, Literature, Review
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