When It All Went To Custard
The Julian Calendar
Marsilio Press, $35.00,
What a difference a year can make. The plots of Danielle Hawkins’s When It All Went To Custard and William Henry’s The Julian Calendar both take place over exactly one year – just enough time to immerse readers in a rich story and see them through to the other side. While not the 24 hours Aristotle prescribed, these novels remind us that a year as a unity of time can still prove a useful device for portraying a full narrative arc.
Both When It All Went To Custard and The Julian Calendar are stories about love lost and found, about passion, connection, unspoken assumptions and hard-won reassessments. Hawkins and Henry (William Henry is a pseudonym for writer Simon Hertnon) have each written novels that, while different in tone and scope, share a concern with what it means to truly love and with how we can recognise this sort of real connection even when it arrives in the most unexpected and unlikely of moments.
When It All Went To Custard, as its title suggests, is in part a wry story about confronting disappointment. The novel’s narrator, Jenny Reynolds, is a world-weary part-time building control officer who is also a wife, mother, daughter, gardener and sometime farmer. She lives on her family’s farm in a house just down the way from her retired parents’ place.
The first thing Jenny shares with us is, “I wasn’t enjoying the afternoon of 23 February even before I learnt that my husband was having an affair.” And so we are ushered into the book’s lively, mordant first-person narrative. The novel expertly draws us into Jenny’s noisy, boisterous, topsy-turvy world, and from the get-go we are eager to learn more about her and her life.
Andrew Faulkner, Jenny’s outwardly stern neighbour, has surprised her at her office to let her know that he has just found his wife and Jenny’s husband in flagrante. That her bumptious husband, Dave (“that grass seed in the sock of my happiness”), has been philandering with the neighbour’s wife should be upsetting news but, as Jenny lets it be known, this information actually comes as something of a relief. While coming to terms with their imminent separation after Dave panics and tries to patch things up, Jenny acknowledges that the marriage has long since flatlined: “After another, longer pause I dropped my hands and looked at him. ‘Do you honestly think we’ve got a marriage that’s worth saving?’”
But the marriage ending is just the beginning. Without Dave, Jenny will now have to wrestle with the fact that she may not be able to keep her part-time office job and stay on top of all the farming duties that had been her husband’s. Her parents might be able to help sometimes with both the kids and the farm, but it begins to look like they may have to sell up, which no-one but Jenny’s upwardly mobile Wellington-Pilates-studio-owner sister, Rebecca, wants to see happen.
Hawkins’s rollicking novel tackles all this life-altering drama with aplomb. The book’s breezy, smart-alecky narrator balances her angst with humour and sly wit. Jenny seems to be speaking directly to us, and her confessional, chatty voice lifts us up and into her riveting story. She tells us that “My conclusions, as you might expect from conclusions reached at two in the morning, were not particularly optimistic.” Jenny’s jaunty, confidential, self-deprecating tone renders even the bleakest of times less awful.
Hawkins is at her most acerbic when Jenny is talking about her young children, Lily and Nathan. There are a number of moments when Jenny tosses off lines that reveal her quick wit as well as her abiding love. We read that “Lily, who by this time was clinging to me like a demented limpet, didn’t reply” and “Nathan sighed as if the stupidity of adults was a cross almost too heavy to bear.” We listen in as Jenny interacts with her son: “‘But – but – but can we have pizza tomorrow, and can I sprinkle the cheese with my fairy fingers?’ I smiled. Ruthless dinosaur assassin one second, dainty cheese sprinkler the next.”
But When It All Went To Custard’s humorous, glib tone is just its top note. Jenny’s world has been turned upside down, and she is by turns bitter and blithe about this. Yet, underneath it all, Hawkins’s story is a more urgent one of re-examining assumptions, reconsidering expectations, redefining love and reasserting what’s important.
Henry’s The Julian Calendar, though entirely different in mood from When It All Went To Custard, is also a book that explores what it means to reconsider and redefine love, passion and connection.
Daniel Jamieson, a young Kiwi living in London in 1992 while trying to recover from an all-consuming love affair that has ended badly, is introduced to Julian Marriot, also a Kiwi living in London. Daniel is in his early 20s and is straight. Julian is in his early 60s and is gay. The two immediately connect over their love of symphonies, choral music, moral philosophy and heady conversation. It quickly becomes clear to them that their attachment, though quite new, is deep. Over the course of the novel, we watch as Daniel and Julian become more and more invested in each other, while forging into what is uncharted emotional terrain for them both.
The novel is structured as alternating personal-journal-like chapters that record one year in these two characters’ lives. We hear first from Daniel and then from Julian as the book switches from one man’s intimate revelations to the other’s. The novel tacks between two competing perspectives. We listen in on Daniel’s thoughts and feelings, and then we overhear Julian as he recounts things that Daniel had not noticed or has neglected to share with us. In this way, the book is premised on the idea of co-authorship and collaboration, and we are made to consider what it might mean to tell all or to leave some things unsaid. The co-writing stems from a complex relationship between the two men, and the book’s format allows Henry to explore the complexity of differing viewpoints.
The Julian Calendar is a love story, but not in the way that readers might expect. Daniel and Julian both spend a year detailing their feelings, and they clearly love each other, but both to themselves and to others in the novel – namely, Daniel’s new girlfriend and her family – the love between the two men is not easily acknowledged nor accepted. The book uncannily makes the relatively recent past, 1992, feel like terra incognita. It is difficult to recall how different it all was then – how being gay was something that was not easily talked about in some circles, and how some people genuinely feared those who were gay. Henry probes the layers of assumptions and feelings attendant on sexuality in those years. He manages to make 1992 seem like a nearly foreign place – a place where a gay man befriending a straight man was almost unthinkable.
Indeed, the book’s title gestures at this notion of another time. As Daniel explains to Julian, the Julian calendar represented Julius Caesar’s reform and realignment of the Roman calendar. Caesar, in effect, codified time, aligning his calendar with the sun, rather than with sublunary politicking. Over the course of the one year of this novel, rather than abiding by their own and others’ assumptions and biding their time, Daniel and Julian find themselves creating a new space and time – one that will recognise the seemingly uncategorisable feelings they have for each other.
Daniel and Julian spend much of the novel working to clarify what their profound connection means both to themselves and to others. As Julian shares upon his return from a trip to New Zealand with Daniel and Daniel’s girlfriend:
Much has been given to me since my return. What will Daniel give to me? What can he give to me? And what is it that I want from him? I have asked that final question of myself so often, and recently I have wondered if “passionate friendship” does not fit the desire. But is it not a mutually exclusive term?
Passionate friendship is indeed an apt descriptor for what Daniel and Julian share over the course of their recorded year. Rather than cancelling each other out, these two ideas yoked together comprise the mystery and the appeal of this story of love redefined and reimagined.
Maggie Trapp is a writer and a teacher living in Wellington.