Darkening and deepening, Catherine Robertson

Through the Lonesome Dark
Paddy Richardson
Upstart Press, $35.00,
ISBN 9781927262986

Paddy Richardson takes a risk with her latest novel. By setting it in Blackball, a mining town on the West Coast in the early 1900s, she raises expectations of another Denniston Rose, and for well over 100 pages, readers could be forgiven for believing that they are reading a similar tale of a spirited young woman in trying circumstances. 

Pansy Williams, 10 when the novel opens, is the youngest child of a drunken father and a broken, bitter mother. Her brothers have left home, driven away, her father insists, by his wife’s “bloody beads and Hail Marys”. Dan Williams has allowed Pansy to be brought up as a Catholic, but it is the only victory Theresa Williams will ever claim over a husband who daily abuses her, verbally and physically.

Life in her family home being barely tolerable, Pansy escapes outdoors and into a world of imagination, with her two best friends, Otto, the smart, mischievous German boy, and Clem, the thoughtful stutterer, who wants to do the right thing always. Kind, outward-looking and unthreatened by Pansy’s cleverness, the boys provide relief from the social pressures that threaten to grind her down. Richardson makes it clear that misogyny is only part of a wider repressive force. It’s a crime to think you are better than others, to want to rise above your station, especially if you’re poor. Though both Pansy and Otto have ambitions, only Otto, from a well-off family, has any real choice to realise them.

The tight trio are separated when Otto is sent away to school, and Pansy’s father shuts down her own opportunity for educational advancement and forces her to take a job as a servant. Aged only 13, but still determined to improve her life, Pansy channels her intelligence into subterfuge, keeping part of her wages from her father, accruing savings for a ticket out of Blackball.

How people cope with the hand life has dealt them is a key theme in the book. Do you despair, accept or fight? Pansy’s mother will never leave her husband because desertion is a sin. Her daughter will never stop hoping for better, though progress towards her goal is painfully slow. “The trick,” says Pansy, “is to not mind the waiting too much. To try not to mind.”

That thought – “try not to mind” – is what we must hold onto when the novel switches abruptly from Pansy’s point of view to Clem’s. This is Richardson’s risk: to force us to leave the character we’ve followed for nearly half the novel, and plunge us into the life of another, who up till then has taken a quiet back seat. Richardson also alters the narrative style, and what was a relatively conventional, if lyrically written, story becomes more impressionistic, playing with time and perspective. It also becomes bleaker in tone, and not only because much of the action takes place in WWI trenches. Clem, until now always the good boy, has made two rash decisions that could ruin several lives besides his own, and his struggle to understand why is equal parts frustrating and poignant.

In short, the second half of this novel provides quite a different reading experience, and not every reader will appreciate the wrench of leaving Pansy behind, or the fact they must now work a little harder with the writing. They may even feel betrayed that their expectation of the book has been turned on its head. There will be no satisfying resolution, no uplift in the final pages.

Persist, because as the novel darkens, it also deepens. After spirited, straightforward Pansy, Clem is almost an anti-hero, at times bordering on the nihilistic, though he is a loyal friend and a steady soldier. And Pansy has not disappeared entirely; she returns, and we see the consequences of the decisions she’s made – more considered than Clem’s, but not necessarily any wiser.

It’s inevitable that we compare the characters further, which Richardson must have intended. As their two stories unfold, we see that they share integrity, the courage to choose what’s right over social propriety, and an ability to endure with forbearance. Pansy’s “try not to mind the waiting” is Clem’s “Well, that’s another day done, and the next one tomorrow.” We see that they are both damaged by hardship, and Richardson gives us no comfort about how it will affect the rest of their lives. But that feels more satisfying than a happy ending because it rings true, and because we have enough knowledge of these two characters to hope that they will never give up.

Catherine Robertson’s fifth novel, Gabriel’s Bay, is reviewed on p6.

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Posted in Fiction, Literature, Review
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