Keeping it in the family, Tina Shaw

Necessary Secrets
Greg McGee
Upstart Press, $38.00,
ISBN 9781988516639

Loving Sylvie
Elizabeth Smither
Allen and Unwin, $37.00,
ISBN 9781988547114

Two recently-published novels explore inter-generational stories, yet there couldn’t be two more different treatments.

As in his last novel, The Antipodeans, Greg McGee again draws on his own family background as a leaping-off point for his latest offering. Here, instead of historical family secrets (see Listener interview of McGee, June 29 issue), Necessary Secrets is a contemporary take on family dynamics in the form of Den Sparks and his three adult children. 

We meet Den, an ex-television guy, and his adult children at his 70th birthday party. Den comments, as they bicker: “Being in the same space for too long seems to have a corrosive effect on my family’s paper-thin scars over old wounds.” Den lives in urban splendour in an inner-city Auckland villa, haunted by his deceased wife Carol and readying himself to take a “lead pill” to avoid the downhill slide into dementia. The party serves to ramp up the family tensions and leads to the fire which destroys the family home. 

As the novel opens, son Will is now running the television commercial agency which Den and friend Branko established – obviously called Flame Inc. Will’s burning through money, drugs and friends at a rate of knots. He seems a very 1990s-Auckland kind of character, always on the cusp of the one big success, while keeping himself ramped-up with methamphetamine: “You wouldn’t know just from looking at him how comprehensively fucked he was.” 

Ellie is the do-gooder of the family, a character drawing on McGee’s wife’s experience as a social worker, and working in “Clientsville”. This is the darker side of Auckland, where men get out of prison only to beat up the wife again. Ellie herself, enmeshed in the Ponsonby Road social scene, is desperate to get pregnant and considering sperm donors. So far, she’s only been attracted to “intellectually whimsical wastrels”, which isn’t much use. It’s satisfying when, late in the piece, she hooks up with Henry, another worthy soul. 

Meanwhile, Stan has been living the eco lifestyle on a farm in Collingwood. Of the three siblings, Stan seems the least substantial; perhaps because he isn’t an Auckland character, and this novel is all about Auckland – how you survive, what you do to survive, and what you do when you get lucky (that is, when you inherit money). Even when Stan returns for Den’s death, it is Will who takes Stan in hand and transforms him into a hipster, with new threads and a sharp haircut. The farm’s vision is “an alternative to the violent and acquisitive society around us”, yet, surprisingly, Stan’s land values go out the window in a snip. Stan could prop up the ailing farm with his inheritance, except “salvation kept its mouth shut”. 

As if tacked on, the characters of Māori siblings Jackson and Lila operate at the periphery of this privileged white family. Lila supplies Will with meth; Jackson is Ellie’s project and Den’s friend. Their characters widen the Sparks family group, while reminding us that there are other kinds of living in Aotearoa. As victims of family abuse, it’s good to see Jackson and Lila succeed in their different ways.  

Will also seems to become a better person. He certainly gets back with his wife and kids and, this being Auckland, is now working in commercial property. Money still has a hold over Will: he moves from being a user to dealing.

Oddly enough, Den’s death seems to have a liberating effect on his children; or perhaps it’s just the effect of the money. As he admits in a retrospective video: “I got so many things wrong, and my worst sins were visited upon my children.” At the end of the day, “a new world is coming”, thinks Stan, although he remains uncertain about this 1960s-style aspiration: “What he did know was his love for his sister.” 

Elizabeth Smither’s sixth novel is also set in Auckland, yet this is a much more ephemeral version of the city. A sense of refinement and subtlety informs Smither’s novels. From her first novel, First Blood (1985), Smither’s fictional output has been at the literary end of the scale, owing a linguistic debt to her poetry. The world of her characters also reflects a literary sensibility.  

Isobel, the matriarch in Loving Sylvie, thinks nothing of gifting the works of Colette to her daughter as a kind of warning about life, which Madeleine chooses to ignore. Her husband Kit solves problems by visiting art galleries. 

The world of Smither’s fiction is as slow-moving and deceptive as a deep country river and reflects a curious timelessness. Perhaps it’s the lack of mobile phones and the internet. It’s a world of couples lying spine to spine in bed and the need for pots of tea to be refreshed.  

Loving Sylvie delves into the inner lives of three main women: Sylvie, who at the start of the novel is marrying Ben; her grandmother Isobel, who raised Sylvie from the age of four; and Sylvie’s largely-absent mother Madeleine. Neither Madeleine, nor Ben’s mother Cora, are present at the wedding, much to Sylvie’s relief. 

These are unusual women. Madeleine abandoned her daughter to live in Paris. Despite this one decisive event, she remains a slight and drifting kind of character, with no real purpose, passively accepting whatever life throws at her. When she marries Freddy and moves with him to Melbourne, she spends her time drinking tea at cafés and shopping. 

Her mother, Isobel, has grit. During Sylvie’s difficult teenage years, sneaking out at night, she follows her granddaughter at a distance, not willing to interfere, yet letting Sylvie know that she is watching over her. There are other surprising elements about her character, such as a slashed tyre, that reveal an obstinate streak to her nature. Despite Cora’s hatred, Isobel takes pains to meet with her, hoping for some kind of softening. 

Cora is the one person who doesn’t love Sylvie. “Determined on enmity”, she is a “proud self-important delusional woman”, as Isobel puts it. Cora’s anger “flowed freely; her kindness, in contrast, had to gnaw its way to the surface as if scouts were required.” 

Various attempts by both Isobel and Sylvie fail to change Cora’s attitude. Why she is like this is not fully explained or given any background, although a later hospitalisation suggests she might have a mental health issue. Is that too simplistic an explanation for her character? Perhaps. She is certainly a difficult person to understand. 

Meanwhile, Sylvie – despite being “suggestible” and having to contend with an evil mother-in-law – settles fairly naturally into marriage with Ben. They live above a Chinese fruit shop for a while and are given daily gifts of fruit. There is a somewhat romantic haze around Sylvie’s character, as seen in the opening, hand trailing in the water as her grandfather rows her across a lake to be married. 

When the three women are finally in the same room, Madeleine having come back from Melbourne for a visit, the scene seems oddly empty. There is obvious tension as they sip brandy, yet it is as if the distance between them is too hard to bridge.  

Often, scenes such as this remain unresolved and opaque. It is left to the reader to interpret the signs to gain an understanding of the delicate relationship dynamics at play in this novel. Another example is when Sylvie and Ben have the good fortune of a house to rent cheaply as long as they look after the deceased owner’s dog – named Lovejoy, naturally – and yet the couple are unhappy in this house. The heart of the problem is unclear. 

Meanwhile, Madeleine’s pampered life in Melbourne is experiencing difficulties. Freddy is having an affair, and she runs back to New Zealand. Smither is good at elevating the mundane or expected. From Freddy’s point of view, the affair “was like embarking on a voyage, stowing trunks below and then coming up on deck to look at a disappearing land.”

There is a fluid moving between points of view which creates a dream-like world in which these characters play out their minor victories and defeats. In the final analysis, the message seems to be that we human beings are frail, on this stage for only a short time. 

The last word might go to Isobel’s husband Kit: “No more Isobel to lie against, no more other spine.”

Tina Shaw is the author of novels for children and adults. Her latest title, Ursa, was published in April by Walker Books and reviewed in NZRB Winter 2019. 

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