Back in the day, Chris Else

Tane’s War
Brendaniel Weir
Cloud Ink Press, $30.00,
ISBN 9780473415648

Gone to Pegasus
Tess Redgrave
Submarine, $35.00,
ISBN 9780473419196

Rotoroa
Amy Head
Victoria University Press, $30.00,
ISBN 9781776561919

Over the last ten years or so, the number of established New Zealand publishers bringing out local fiction has shrunk to less than a handful, while the annual output of eager talent from our creative writing schools has continued apace. As a result, there have been a lot of manuscripts out there struggling to reach a readership. Gradually, solutions have been found; literary ambition, like love, inevitably finds a way, resorting to such outlets as self-publishing, collectives and small one- or two-person companies.

One such outlet is Cloud Ink Press, which describes itself as “a boutique publisher”, “established by graduates of AUT’s Master of Creative Writing Programme”. Their first handful of books includes Brendaniel Weir’s Tane’s War, a substantial novel with two strong story lines about the difficulties of growing up gay in a hostile world. The primary tale, set in Auckland in 1954, concerns Briar, a gay teenager who falls foul of his narrow-minded father and gets shipped off to an educational farm that specialises in teaching boys agricultural skills such as shearing. Here he encounters Victor, the alpha male among the youthful shearers, who turns on him and bullies him with the viciousness that only an irrational hatred seems to engender. Briar survives with the help of another boy, Aussie, and the watchful guidance of Tane, the programme’s supervisor. 

The second storyline is set 40 years earlier and sees the teenaged Tane living on his wits on the streets of Auckland and then volunteering for service in the New Zealand Expeditionary Force. He finishes up in the trenches of the Western Front where he meets a British cavalry officer, becomes fully conscious of his sexuality and engages in a brief but passionate affair. The “war” of the title, thus includes both the literal battles of 1914-18 and the struggle against prejudice and social injustice that gay people have faced both then and since.

Weir writes fluently with an eye for detail. The strongest passages, I felt, were his descriptions of the physical world: the shearing shed and the work going on there, early 20th-century Auckland and the mud and horror of the trenches. In comparison, the characters seem a little sketchy. Briar comes across as a sturdy soul, tougher than he looks from the outside, but Victor is something of a stereotype: nasty and narcissistic. I got little sense of what made him tick. In addition, the love scenes had a tone of detached innocence. This is no doubt an attempt to contrast them with their tainted environment, but it left me with a sense of their unreality.

One of the problems of collaborative publishing is that editing is often done by members of the collective who may only be moderately skilled at it. Good editors are not just people who can spell or spot a dangling participle at fifty paces. They also need an eye for inconsistencies and factual errors. They would not, for example, allow a New Zealand Shipping Company vessel to be given the prefix “HMS”, a designation reserved for the Royal Navy.

Such niggles aside, Tane’s War is a solid achievement, a contribution to the small body of local gay literature and a sign of the increasing health of local publishing.

Another of the alternatives to traditional publishing that has become increasingly popular over recent years involves the writer making a financial contribution to the production of the book. This is not so much vanity publishing, in which the writer meets all the costs, but a joint venture between an established publisher and an author. Such seems to be the arrangement for Tess Redgrave’s Gone to Pegasus brought out under the contributory Submarine imprint of Mākaro Press. Set in Dunedin in 1892, it tells the story of 23-year-old Eva McAlester, whose husband, William, has been confined to Seacliff Mental Asylum. Eva is a gifted musician and advertises for pupils to whom she can give piano lessons. One of the respondents is Grace, exotically dressed and with strong political views on matters such as women’s suffrage. Grace doesn’t want to learn but to listen. The two become friends through their shared love of music, a delicately portrayed relationship that touches on the homoerotic without straying beyond the bounds of Victorian propriety. Their story plays out against a background of actual events involving real-life characters, most notably Truby King, who was then medical superintendent at Seacliff, and the egregious Henry Fish, whose opposition to the suffrage went so far as to pay people to sign a petition against it. Fish’s defeat in his bid for the Dunedin mayoralty was due in part to the fall-out from this scandal and to the votes of female ratepayers.

Redgrave writes clearly and vividly with short simple sentences that give her prose an emphatic rhythm suitable to the temper of an age when things were often seen in black and white. Her characters, too, are nicely distinguished and are drawn with subtlety and depth. In my work as an agent and manuscript assessor, I often see novels set in colonial New Zealand with feminist themes. They invariably involve a violent bully of a husband who treats his hapless wife with arbitrary and unrelenting cruelty. Redgrave avoids such crude stereotypes and thereby provides a more nuanced view of the sexual politics of the time. Grace’s husband is a bully, but he is no cartoon monster; he is a rounded character with layered motivation. He is also no match for his wife’s subversive intelligence. His place in the novel is also counter-balanced by Eva’s husband, the ethereal William, whose withdrawal from the world is as much a moral judgement as a measure of his own inadequacy.       

Amy Head’s debut novel, brought out by Victoria University Press, follows her award-winning short story collection, Tough, published in 2013. Like Briar’s tale in Tane’s War, it is set in the 1950s. It tells the stories of Lorna, a young Salvation Army officer married to another officer, Paul, who is her senior by a decade or more; Elsie K Morton the real-life journalist, known in the book by her birth-name, Katherine; and Jim Brooks, an alcoholic with a young family. The three come together briefly on the eponymous island of Rotoroa in the Hauraki Gulf, which was for many years a drug and alcohol treatment centre run by the Salvation Army. In the blurb on the back of the book, Damien Wilkins says, “It makes its moves with such care and concealment that it’s a total surprise to find it has pressed such a weight on your chest. A beguiling and brilliant achievement”, which, for once, given the purpose and the tendencies of such endorsements, is not a massive exaggeration. Head writes beautifully. Her sentences are simple and subtle, unadorned by the metaphysical metaphors that some young writers seem to strive for. She distinguishes her three voices not with big dramatic effects, but with small, deft touches. Thus, we have part of Katherine’s back story – a trip into the Everglades:

Their guide poled them along, a grown Tom Sawyer in a ranger’s uniform and wide-brimmed hat. He whistled a birdcall. “Look here, three o’clock.” Ninety degrees from the bow was a kingbird, elegant in black and white. “Six, behind you.” Turtles, one large and two tiny, plopped into the water off the tangled mess of a dead tree trunk. They glided through a cypress forest that was submerged to its knees and trailing rags of Spanish moss, sky a distant blue mist. Katherine could apply perhaps half of her usual level of concentration; the rest was taken up in wonder at the heat.

Compare this, with its literary reference and its journalistic distance from its subject, to Jim’s self-conscious niggle at himself, working in the garden on Rotoroa:

He put the shears down and rolled his shoulder, rolled his head. A ten-year-old could have done the same work, and he was willing to bet that the ten-year-old wouldn’t have had knees that cracked and a shoulder that played up. Behind him the lawn sloped up mildly, putting him in a grassy dip. A lavender bush hummed with bees. He didn’t bother them and they didn’t bother him.

The writing unfolds with a careful selection of apposite detail, illuminating and economical. As Wilkins suggests, it creeps up on you.

Head treats her narrative with even greater economy. The book is held together by Lorna’s story: her pregnancy by a Mormon missionary at age 14, the peculiar circumstances of her son’s adoption, her induction into the Salvation Army, Paul’s courtship and their marriage. The writing plays lightly and sympathetically on the role of religion in her life while, at the same time, maintaining a subtle sense of her independence from it, an independence that gently strengthens as the book goes on. In contrast, Jim and Katherine’s stories are roughly sketched. We see them mostly in specific episodes like a series of video clips that are not always in sequence and have significant gaps and sometimes seeming contradictions. For example, at one point, Katherine goes to a pawnbroker to redeem a sewing machine for Jim’s wife, Colleen. This seems to be at Jim’s behest, although we don’t see the scene in which he gives Katherine the receipt. In the course of the transaction, the pawnbroker reveals that Jim has pawned other items: two cardboard boxes containing, among other things, the remnants of a coin collection. Is Katherine going to redeem these, too?

“No, I’m not, [she says] but thank you for your help.”

“All right.” He yanked the box nearest to him around to pick it up.

The sewing machine was quite heavy and this time the [shop] bell seemed to say good riddance.

Eight pages later, having delivered the machine, Katherine is about to take leave of Colleen and her son Derek.

“I didn’t finish telling you,” Katherine said. “I have more of your things in the car to give back. You might be interested, Derek. I don’t suppose you collect coins, do you?”

He whipped around to face his mother and then back to Katherine. “Where did you find them?” he asked. Katherine wasn’t going to answer that.

Presumably, Katherine changed her mind after leaving the pawnbrokers and went back for the two boxes. However, leaving a gap of this size in the story gave me a disengaging jolt; I found myself going back to check in case I’d missed something. Such narrative parsimony does not feel like “care and concealment”, so much as clumsiness or manipulation. I wondered why a writer who is otherwise so skilled would allow such awkward lacunae in her text. Are they a result of the modern distaste for the conventions of traditional narrative? Or do they indicate a lack of faith in the strength of the story and a fear that the reader’s interest can only be maintained through artifice? Either way, they left me feeling that the book had irksome flaws. Although I enjoyed it the most of the three novels considered in this review, I felt it fell short of what it might have been. Fine writing and sensitive observation do not, of themselves, make a good novel. Head seems capable of writing something truly splendid, if only she can find a story that deserves her talents. Next time maybe.   

Chris Else is a Dunedin writer and editor.

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