People and places, Louise O’Brien

A Surfeit of Sunsets
Dulcie Castree
Mākaro Press, $35.00,
ISBN 9780994123787

The Earth Cries Out
Bonnie Etherington
Vintage, $38.00,
ISBN 9780143770657

In the late Dulcie Castree’s novel, Shirley abandons her sophisticated life in Wellington in favour of the small seaside town, and its eccentric society, of Taiwhenua on the Kāpiti Coast. Nursing a broken heart and feeling pretty sorry for herself, she finds herself besieged by A Surfeit of Sunsets, relentlessly predictable in their daily beauty.

That transcendent glory is a brutal affront to Shirley’s wounded heart; her melancholy prefers the magpie’s song to the dawn chorus which follows. This novel has such a strong sense of place, and such a strong feeling for place, that the landscape and the weather act to manifest the characters’ essential selves.

May is a woman in her 40s who remains intellectually a child, much cherished, who plays cocooned in the sand dunes; how other characters react to her is an indicative litmus test of character. Fat Wally is a figure of vague foreboding, haunting the edges of scenes of half-light. Newly widowed Poesy, like Shirley, seeks a sea-change in the “cultural desert” of the coast, impeded only by her social ambitions. She sanitises and orders the environment, decorating in shades of sand and sea, carefully displaying a coffee-table book of Shells of New Zealand in a home which “commands” the view. Francis is an enthusiastic young teacher, in whom Shirley inspires the urge to poetry, even if her name is difficult to elevate in rhyme: “Burly, curly, whirly, twirly. ‘Early’ has possibilities.”

This cast of characters is overseen by an unusual narrative voice. Omniscient, and with a distinctive character of its own, the narrator interjects and commentates, speaking both about and to the characters she marshals and judges: “Some poems are written by common men, Francis. For every great and published poet there are thousands who sing their love from a private place, roughly, simply, without thought of fame.”

Yet the narrator tends to get distracted from the people and action of the novel, by tangential ideas which are nevertheless clearly heartfelt:

New Zealanders don’t seem to know how savage their country is … Singlehanded in shorts and sneakers they take on the mountains and the wilderness …Collectively, they build cities on fault lines or over rubbish tips and when the inevitable happens come out fighting, amazed that their beautiful little country was not made for their rest and recreation but, like its tangata whenua, has a hard implacable side.

Sometimes this is delightfully whimsical, sometimes irritating, especially when the voice undercuts itself: “Don’t listen to me. What do I know?” It has the effect of slowing down the action, encouraging one to pay attention to the texture of the writing and to the reading experience itself. But it also distances the reader from the characters emotionally, underlining that the characters are constructions – the reader’s not asked to suspend disbelief at any point – and establishing them as ciphers and symbols for a moral (many morals) located elsewhere, somewhere beyond them. It’s an interesting style, which won’t appeal to every reader.

The natural world also speaks, at volume, in vibrant tropical hues and anguished tones, in Bonnie Etherington’s début novel, The Earth Cries Out. Set in a mountain village in Irian Jaya during the late 1990s, in the unsettled Indonesian province now known as West Papua, this is where a Nelson family goes to recover and atone as aid workers, after the accidental death of their five-year-old daughter. Ruth is eight years old, and the shift is breathtakingly disorienting.

What stuns Ruth in her new home is multiplicity: of voices, names, languages, ethnicities, flora and fauna, histories and circumstances, always also set against the many differences between where she is now, where she’s come from and where she will go. It’s a diversity which she cannot hope to encompass, its stories and voices too many for her to make a whole.

And so she surrenders to incompleteness. The narrative is strewn with inconclusive episodes, in which what “some said” is contested by what “others said” and “may have thought”, before the narrator gives up with a “however it started”. Ruth’s conception and representation of the place, mimicked in the shape and form of the novel, consists of juxtaposed differences and multitudes. The narrative is a more passive act of witness, with a strenuous avoidance of judgment, or the imposition of a singular version of truth.

Some of this arises from the fear of speaking as a privileged voice in a poor, oppressed and colonised society, aware of its potential to speak over and appropriate, in a variant of white guilt which Ruth carries even as a child:

I felt like I was stealing the stories, using them to say something about myself – to be something bigger than I ever could be. Stuffing them inside my head like a rooster trying to fit too many corn kernels in his beak at once. Overflow and choke.

Whatever – completely proper – hesitancy Ruth, and Etherington, might display in engaging these complex networks of power, it is not evident in the writing: the prose is fluent, the metaphors colourful, and the characters likeable. But Ruth does end up choking, just a little. For, in order to avoid stealing people’s stories, she turns instead to telling the stories of plants, going on to study and nurture the flora she was introduced to in Irian Jaya, now domesticated in books and hothouse: “Histories are too much about joining the dots. Dreams and plants are about living, with histories still growing through them.” It’s a slightly slippery tactic to sidestep some tricky postcolonial politics, but it’s largely effective.

Louise O’Brien is a Wellington reviewer, and co-editor of New Zealand Books Pukapuka Aotearoa.

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