“Lashings of empathy”, Tina Shaw

From the Ashes
Deborah Challinor
HarperCollins, $37.00,
ISBN 9781460754122

What You Wish For
Catherine Robertson
Black Swan, $38.00,
ISBN 9780143772811

Discovering that From the Ashes is a sequel to Fire, Challinor’s 2006 novel, makes sense of this novel’s title. Fire was set in Auckland, although based on the Ballantyne’s department store fire of 1947 in Christchurch. From the Ashes is the second book in a series called “The Restless Years” that will take readers up to the Vietnam War.

Fire told the story of four working-class friends employed at a sophisticated department store. Allie Manaia, in From the Ashes, still has nightmares from the horrible department store fire that claimed the lives of her friends. She has also lost a baby, and her grandmother dies, so it’s no wonder she is suffering from what is recognised today as post-traumatic stress syndrome. It’s not until later in the novel that a character tells her about “battle exhaustion” and suggests she quit her job in Smith & Caughey’s, which is triggering her panic attacks. 

Other characters struggle with various difficulties. Donna predictably falls pregnant to a scurrilous chap, while Ana is trying to take care of Jack, who has gone from “lovable grandfather to a smelly grizzled old man”. Wiki and Kura are raising multiple children in the slums of Ponsonby. Kura loses her job when accused of stealing because she is Māori. Pauline must give birth at a Bethany home for unmarried girls. 

Challinor does working-class grunge very well. In fact, the poorer characters in this novel are often shown to be cheerful battlers, as when the Māori families “danced to Elvis and Lloyd amongst the cast-off sheets of rusting roofing iron, the rubbish, the dirt and the weeds”. By contrast, the two significant wealthy characters in the novel are morally bankrupt figures. Kathleen Lawson is a social climber and alcoholic, and James Murdoch has been betraying his wife by visiting the brothel where Polly Manaia works. Like Kathleen, Murdoch and wife Lucy seem to think they can buy anything, including a small child. 

An interesting aspect of this novel is the depiction of the Māori-Pākehā world of 1950s Auckland. As young Johnny Apanui points out, rather obviously, there are more opportunities in Auckland, but everything’s harder, a lot harder: 

I can’t go in a lot of barbershops, I can’t sit in the good seats at the pictures, and no matter how hard we try my mum and dad can’t rent anything better than a crappy old house in one of the worst streets in Ponsonby. 

Yet, reading this work, one would also get the impression that Māori-Pākehā relationships were fairly accepted, almost common, during the 1950s. There are certainly several “mixed” relationships in the novel, with little actual discrimination taking place towards the couples. It all seems rather jolly. Here’s Allie as she explains to Kathleen that her husband is Māori:

“And they’re quite happy with … your choice of husband?”
“Yes. My husband’s family weren’t that thrilled with him marrying a Pakeha girl, though.”
Kathleen looked up at Allie in absolute shock. “What?”
Allie nearly laughed, enjoying herself now. “His mother didn’t want him to marry me.”
“Why on earth not?”
“She didn’t think I’d fit into the Maori way of life.”

Such attitudes have a contemporary feel, as if the mores of today have been superimposed onto these characters. 

Polly, for instance, works in a brothel. Her brother and her friend Evelyn know where she works, yet they accept it at face value. There is no real sense of Polly’s prostitution being a dark or shameful secret. Although, perhaps, there is a hint of authorial moral criticism, as Polly later sells her daughter to the Murdochs (to better her daughter’s future chances), then nicks off to Sydney in disgrace. Similarly, the fleeting depiction of nine-year-old Terence and his attempted hanging after he got told off for dressing up in his mother’s clothes seems quite gratuitous. It is also surprising that his character, aged nine in the 1950s, could be so confident about wanting to be a girl. 

There are other odd moments that either don’t make much sense – such as when Pauline sets fire to Kathleen’s house for being a bitch to her sister Allie – or are entirely predictable: Johnny falling off the harbour bridge straight after putting down a layby payment on an engagement ring for Pauline. There isn’t much in the way of internal life of the characters, yet the stories within this novel are real enough that From the Ashes will no doubt provide a satisfying read. 

What You Wish For is also a sequel – to Gabriel’s Bay, in which new arrival Kerry Macfarlane is assimilated into a small New Zealand community. In this latest novel, the new arrival is Doctor Ashwin Ghadavi. As in Gabriel’s Bay, the novel revolves around a group of local individuals and local issues, such as the threatened building of a waterfront development. There is also a hippy group known as the Wood Sprites living off the grid; eco-activists who out dirty farmers on the net; and the ongoing saga of “Littleville”, a tourism venture that hasn’t yet got off the ground (though may do so in the next book). 

Robertson’s Gabriel’s Bay represents the idealised village where neighbours are your friends, and people actually care about each other. Kerry’s mother Bronagh adopts farmer Vic as a project; Emma sets up an internet dating page for friend Devon; Patricia and Bernard, who were unable to have children, take in Reuben for a month; and Gene encourages Devon to hang out with Brownie, who’s recently out of prison.

Of course, such well-intentioned efforts don’t always work out smoothly, and there are a few ructions. Devon can do without the stalkers camped outside his family house, while Vic must issue a trespass notice to the Wood Sprites. Meanwhile, Dr Ash is befriended by a nudist and his partner who live in a bush-clad house. They have Scrabble evenings. Ashwin, the foreigner in this novel, must side-step an arranged marriage promoted by his domineering mother. He has a crush on the feisty Emma, but she’s bonking an eco-warrior.

There are lashings of empathy for the downtrodden. Solo mum Sidney’s only just holding together part-time jobs while on a benefit and raising two boys. When she falls pregnant to Kerry, she goes into a tail-spin: “If she hadn’t even glimpsed the real Fergal in three years, then how could she tell who Kerry was in eight months.” Reuben’s parents are on sickness benefits: “Each day was a struggle – once-simple tasks became mountainous obstacles.” Vic, on his own after his internet-found wife took off to Aussie, is struggling to singlehandedly keep the farm going. To him, the Wood Sprites are a contented bunch: “And here he was – on paper a landowner, a man of means, but worried, worn out, cash poor, alone.” When Vic’s farmhouse is burned down, the community rallies around. If there is a “bad guy”, it’s probably Rob Hanrahan, with his dirty development plans. When Rob incites a mob against the Wood Sprites and their camp is smashed, Vic must finally stand up to Hanrahan.

Messages are slipped in from time to time: “Communities should be honoured … not smashed apart like so much quarry rock.” While Patricia considers that “none of them was truly safe … And children were the most vulnerable of all.” Lessons are learned. Emma realises that “what she’d done she couldn’t undo” and finds she must grow up. Devon discovers he’s not the only one with problems. Kindness is offered and received. 

The final sequence involves what one character refers to as “serendipity, synchronicity and magical woo-wah”; basically, everybody gets a happy ending. Told via the points of view of six central characters, What You Wish For is full of cheerful down-home humour, a cast of quirky characters and offers the rose-tinted charm of an imaginary small New Zealand town. Gene perhaps sums it up best: “It’s a big old goofy world, and you know stranger things have happened.” 

Tina Shaw is the author of numerous novels, for children and adults; her latest YA title, Ursa, is published in April by Walker Books. Her YA novel Make a Hard Fist is reviewed on p36.

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