Attraction – book review

Attraction, by Ruby Porter

This is a fabulous looking cover, which compelled me to buy Attraction on sight. I dived in and found the writing as terrific as the presentation. I am now going to read everything Ruby Porter writes on any subject at all. Attraction is just such an incredibly stylish read and I loved every page.

I mention the subject of the book, because although the kiwi setting appealed, the story itself wasn’t for me. Three young women are on a coming-of-age roadie around small-town New Zealand, with lots of well-thrashed issues about relationships and sexuality and illness and colonial angst. I felt out of place with the characters, perhaps a little voyeuristic, a bit bored with the self-obsession, and the plot took me nowhere new. Didn’t matter. The fact that these conversations aren’t mine did not in the least detract from the beautiful way Porter expresses herself. You might not love the subject of a painting or way it is framed, but the power of the artist can still blow you away.

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The Captive Wife – book review

The captive wife, by Fiona Kidman

This is a whale of a tale set in the days when a whaler could take a child bride to a remote New Zealand whaling station – when marauding war parties, cannibalism and shipwreck were common and life was fragile – and he could wonder why it all went so wrong.

Fiona Kidman’s The captive wife is a real New Zealand legend.   Jackie Guard was 40 when he married the spunky 14 year old Betty and took her from the Garrison town of Sydney to the whalers’ den of Te Awaiti in the Malborough Sounds.  Theirs is a real history and journals and letters of the time often mention them, particularly after the events recounted in this book that turn Betty into a bit of a celebrity.

Of course things often do go wrong, in a number of ways, but the main action of the story is based on a shipwreck when the Guards are returning to the station after a trip to Sydney and are smashed up on the Taranaki Coast. This is in 1834, before Governor Hobson and the Wakefields, before any kind of systematic colonisation of New Zealand or any semblance of British law, when the only force driving the foreigners in the country was exploitation.  The castaways are attacked, many killed and Betty and her children are captured by the Ngāti Ruanui Māori.

Jacky Guard is released to bring a ransom, but returns four months later on the Royal Navy’s man-o’-war Alligator from Sydney and a captain hell bent on teaching the Māori a lesson. This is England’s first armed conflict with Māori, and we are still learning from the lesson today. 

I guess you want to know what happened to Betty in those four months she spent in captivity, the book is called the captive wife, after all.  Well, first she witnessed the cannibalism of her murdered crewmen. And then she was struck by a tomahawk, which was deflected by a comb in her hair (so the legend goes, and you can view both the comb and Jacky Guard’s pistol at Te Papa) then her infant son was taken from her to be trained in Māori ways. And then … well, things changed.  She fell under the protection of a chief called Oaoiti who was kind to her and a man in extreme contrast to her rather nasty husband Jacky…

The story starts, like most stories of the time, with a male voice, and Jackie is wondering where he can lay his poker. But soon we hear Betty’s voice and female viewpoint, and later she tells her story to an older, sympathetic friend. I really like the duality of this, she and Jackie have very different eyes on the same world.

The research Fiona Kidman has done for this book is spanking and I never doubt that the fictionalised parts could well have happened in that time and place, though the telling of the story is often deliberately one-sided and told by unreliable, limited or misunderstood narrators.  The complexity of the telling sure make this a great read and I highly recommend it for an intelligent slap of New Zealand’s wild history.

If  The captive wife is a suggestion for a book club read, Elizabeth Welsh of Auckland University gives an excellent academic summary review on the themes, metaphors and perspectives here: The captive wife. But do read the book first.

Decline & Fall on Savage Street – book review

Decline & Fall on Savage Street, by Fiona Farrell

A lot happens. It says this in the blurb.

So don’t go thinking you can just whizz through this as you would a normal novel. You need to go in with the right attitude, with a predisposition to enjoy Fiona Farrell (I do!) and a realisation that some novels don’t have obvious characters you get to know and love and follow on a journey.

The character on a journey in Farrell’s Decline & Fall on Savage Street is a house.  It took me a while to understand this, (and apparently she has written a non-fiction book about this house so perhaps I should have come better prepared) so for a while I floundered around with characters disappearing just as I got interested and a whole new set of people coming in. It reads more like a set of short stories, chronologically spanning 100 years, with each story bringing characters who live in the same house with their personalities and tribulations – from our perspective we see a house, but of course for every new arrival it is their home, they move their baggage in and own it.

As a collection of short stories this book is very rewarding and the format works really well, I love the fact that we get to know the house better than the characters themselves because we’ve been inhabiting it, along with all the former tenants, since it was built.

But she’s clever, Fiona Farrell, and this is also a story of another character that lives under the bank of the river, undisturbed (mostly) by the turmoil of change and war and earthquakes. In contrast to the lot that happens to the humans above, nothing happens to the eel for a very, very long time. Or if something happens, it is the drop of a leaf onto the water. We feel her ageing not in the time it takes to read the pages, but in the span of frantic, scrabbling activity that happens ashore. Her story made me feel old. But every story has a climax, and even for the eel, eventually something happens.

Each human chapter starts and ends with a missing line which drove me mad. I guess it is to show we are dipping in and out of a story, but this is a book for intelligent readers and we know that. A kind editor should have said, let’s not do this.

I wont specifically remember any of the characters in this story, they passed by too fast,  but the house and the eel will stay with me forever.

 

Also by Fiona Farrell, if you love good New Zealand writing, is:
Mr Allbones’ Ferrets – Book Review

 

Chappy – book review

Chappy, by Patricia Grace

Chappy, by Patricia Grace, is a domestic story of a community whose relationships are entwined and confusing in the way real life is confusing.

“I told you that Aki was your uncle by double adoption. That first adoption was when Dorothea became mother to Moana-Rose and me, and we became his sisters.”  The timeline jumps around and the narrators switch about, it’s a rambling story that could be told by mates sitting around on old sofas with a few beers, interrupting each other and backtracking. Some incidents feel honest and factual, others edited with the retelling. This is the way family histories are, and there is truth in both.

The catalyst for the story being told is the (dare I say, Gen-Y) crisis of young Daniel in Switzerland, of New Zealand descent, wanting to find himself. He is the investigative reporter, if you like. I think the discovery of his family helps to heal him. I like to think so, anyway, although the story is not about him. “There’s a much more interesting story than one of a spoilt brat with his own bank account who had to try and kill himself…”

For me, the breadline living of the whanau that Daniel finds back home is a pretty typical mid-century NZ story, Maori or Pakeha. Rural life was precarious: a lot of self sufficiency, some number 8 wire, generosity and sharing, the value of a storyteller to an introverted community, both the welcoming and the fear of strangers. The necessity of going away and how grounded you feel when you make it back.

Chappy Star is a stranger, a Japanese stowaway on a ship. Maori seaman Aki stumbles across him and takes him home to the marae, where he finds kindred spirits. The differences between ghost-like Chappy and the warm and candid Oriwa, with whom he falls in love, are made to appear superficial – language, culture, nationality are nothing beside their attachment. Their love survives years of racially induced separation and misunderstandings. Oriwa understands this as she disentangles her family stories for Daniel. Maybe we all need to tell our lives as stories to understand them.

The novel is about roots and coming home – from Hawaii, where Aki washes up, from Switzerland where Daniel is born, and the confusion that ensues when home means two or more places. Chappy weaves between his cultural home in Japan, his adopted home in Hawaii and his spiritual home with Oriwa in New Zealand.

The story of Moonface made me cry. There is a lost child in many stories, but none so poignantly as here.  Moonface is Aki’s adored little brother.  At the end of one long afternoon, Moonface insists on following Aki to the spring, but he lies down in the ferns and falls asleep. Aki fills the billy, and when he turns around the boy is gone. In his mind, forever,  is “- the cold spring water, the silver tin, water silvered, the creaking birds, the pouring, the boy invisible, the unspeaking leaves, the trail of torches, the voices calling, the crying, the wailing of all the grandmothers in the world, the waiting, the ferny nest.”  It seems natural that Aki would absorb his lost brother into his soul to become his moral compass, the well of his tenderness. “Go home,” Moonface says, when Aki has been away at sea too long and needs to get his feet back on family ground.

Patricia Grace writes with lovely, sparse descriptions. Aki: “I was at the woodpile sawing stove-lengths from manuka trunks I’d brought down from the slopes. About mid-morning. There was mist soft-footing about the hills, grey like old photos.” It’s all you need, a whole scene implied from a good choice of words.

There’s a moral to Chappy, which is spelled out very clearly (in case you missed it) as Daniel sums up the story at the close.  He was born of the generation that left the home fires, and now is a wealthy outsider looking back in. “…I am who I am. I understand that now. I’m not about to chuck it all away and go barefoot, and I don’t wannabe a wannabe. So, no matter where I go or what else I undertake, I’ll continue to increase my understanding of this part of myself that I embrace with all my heart. I’ll keep in touch, work back and forth from wherever I am in the world and contribute from the depth and core of me.”

There you go, kids.

Potiki – book review

Potiki, by Patricia Grace

Not sure how I grew up in a kiwi bookshop without having read this. It would be on my list of books to recommend to new New Zealanders, as well as to oldies like me who missed it. It is a description of a rural Maori community and a way of life that most of us are probably aware is part of our history, but we haven’t been inside.  In Potiki, Patricia Grace invites us in.

This is a simple story of good verses evil, weak versus strong, county v commerce, tangata whenua v greedy imperialists.  Basically, it’s a book about the imbalance of power, told from the viewpoint of the extended rural family whose lives are threatened by the Dollarman who will bulldoze away their traditional lifestyle and smother their ancestral lands with rather obvious bad things: night clubs, golf, a zoo of trained whales and seals.  The reader needs to get past this very clichéd plot and enjoy the Maori characters, several of whom tell the story in their very distinct voices.

Roimata is the strong sensible woman at the centre of the community, and tells a lot of the story. She is a balance between her children who go away to university and come home with skills and ideas, and her husband Hemi, who believes in the old ways, working the land like his ancestors did, feeding the family from the garden and the sea, trusting in the land to provide all they need.  If school doesn’t suit the other kids, teach them traditional ways at home – Maori science and folklore. To Grace’s credit, she doesn’t paint this with a rose wash and the poverty is raw.  You do get the sense that these are people living on the edge and that subsistence living is, in the long term, unsustainable.

Roimata and Hemi’s adopted son Toko is physically handicapped but has a sixth sense, and this mystical element blurs the edges of reality enough that disbelief taints the rest of the story.  Once fantasy is out of the bag like that anything can happen, and the story entwines with myth and you don’t know what to believe.  There may be deeper parallels here, between Toki and Maui or Christ, but they take a bit of delving and this complicates an otherwise simple story.

Mary, Toko’s birth mother, is a colourful personality treated sympathetically both by Grace and her characters. She has a role in the story and the community. Her intellectual disabilities shape but don’t define her, and she thrives in the loving community.

And it is the loving community that really is the crux of the book – no one is marginalised, everyone is welcomed and you find yourself rooting for this most precarious way of life and deeply saddened to know that it is disappearing, or gone.

There are many Maori words and no glossary which has raised an issue with many readers – to me, this feels inclusive rather than alienating. Use your own sixth sense.  Or google.

Patricia Grace chooses her words well and is a beautifully understated storyteller. Potitki challenged some of my long held assumptions. I wish I had read it earlier. I went straight on to read Chappy.

Heloise – book review

Heloise, by Mandy Hager

Here it is!  Hot off the press, the Christmas book for your intelligent friends, the perfect answer to the question – read anything good recently?

In Heloise, Mandy Hager retells the ancient, true story of Heloise & Abelard,  a love affair between two brilliant, medieval French scholars.

Heloise of Argenteuil is my kind of heroine: she’s a thinker, smart and ambitious, she knows what she wants (education) and is argumentative and forthright.  But because she was born around 1100 she has a totally different frame of reference to a modern heroine and she understands the world through a filter of medieval religion. Everything starts with an understanding of God. That axiom makes her humble, deeply compassionate, with a strong morality. I can’t help thinking that if Heloise had been born this century she would have set the whole world ablaze.  She is a heroine to applaud.

The story opens with Heloise, aged 5, shackled in a pig sty.  She is rescued by her Uncle Fulbert who takes her to a nunnery and eventually to live with him in Paris. Her legend grows as she hunts scholars and philosophers to feed her mind, and eventually hones in on the academic genius of the day – Peter Abelard.

I found lots to interest me in this book. The love story is fabulously confusing, twisted, ultimately unfulfilling and terribly disappointing. What a prick (just saying). But the book’s setting is equally beguiling with cloisters, nunneries, ancient universities and wonderful descriptions of Île de la Cite in Paris, where “the houses are planted as tight as podded seeds.”  Underneath it all is a strong academic backbone – education in the middle ages meant debate and argument, you proved things were true by philosophical logic as much as science.  Educated people of the day had a quote for everything – I know so few people now who remember quotes, and no one who has the mots justes to illuminate a point in debate as beautifully as do Heloise and Abelard.

The background history is a powerful tide that carries the story along. The whole of France is in a state of religious upheaval as the State and Church grab power, redistribute wealth and rearrange laws to keep control of the masses. It all sounds a rather familiar tune, playing down the centuries. If your interest is in history the detail here will add real zing.

Mostly, I loved the complexity of the characters and how they were immersed their times. In an age of sanctioned domestic violence, the kindly Uncle Fulbert recommends Abelard beat Heloise if she doesn’t perform her studies correctly. Fulbert gets old and bitter and resentful of his young charge, betrayed, he also beats her senseless and yet she continues to love him in a complicated way. From Fulbert’s ambitious friend Stephen de Garlande I expected betrayal but he remained surprisingly steadfast to Heloise, a better man than expected. 

And so, I come to Peter Abelard, the great theologian and scholar, the rock star of the Cathedral school of Notre-Dame, the lover of Heloise. Even now I don’t know how I feel about him. Part of me wants to boo, but like Heloise I found his brilliance extraordinarily attractive.  He is impulsive and calculating. He saves and deserts. He is a loving rapist. On balance, I think he was a totally nasty piece of work, a man with huge natural arrogance that is exacerbated by his sycophantic followers.  Or perhaps he is driven to madness, and deserves sympathy and understanding? Mandy Hager leaves us to decide.  I think I will leave it to Heloise.

The Necessary Angel – book review

The Necessary Angel, by C K Stead

I’m always a bit suspicious about an older bloke inventing a protagonist with three delicious women on his plate.  So I read C K Stead’s The Necessary Angel  as a wistful story with more than a touch of fantasy.

As an exploration of relationships I did find I had to suspend belief. Are women (especially young, attractive and bright women) really so susceptible to a middle-aged married man’s charms?

Even Max’s high achieving wife, who disdainfully ejects him from the family home and children, seems unrealistically warm and understanding as she sets him up downstairs in a shag pad. You don’t get the feeling that they are so particularly estranged that he would immediately start exploring other women, it is hardly a way to win back the affection of his wife and continue a relationship of mutual respect with his children. Perhaps a holiday might have been a better way to re-charge the marriage rather than bringing a couple of hot young colleagues home to bed.

But this is Paris and the additional love-interest women are both embroiled in other relationships anyway. So, all good, then.

Paris is gorgeous to walk around with C K Stead. He has the poet’s ability to give an intense feeling of place in so few words. I did find myself re-reading some lovely phrases over again and out loud. It feels real. Narrow streets, leafy squares, roadside eating and the November wind. The incidental characters, too, are perfect: the concierge, the beggars, Skipper the dog.  The lead character doesn’t need to be a New Zealander – a Brit would serve just as well, and Max, who lecturers at the Nouvelle Sorbonne on war poetry, feels more European than any kiwi I know. But I still have enough of a chip on my shoulder to get a bit of a buzz when a kiwi (albeit a fictional one) has a prestigious starring role.

By any other author I would suggest the academic citations are slightly pretentious. Of course this is a story about literary academics and C K Stead has every right to name drop Flaubert, Amis, Lessing, Naipaul, Mansfield, Houellebecq, Fitzgerald, Stein, Hemmingway, Edward Thomas, Nabokov, Roland Barthes, Claude Simon, Wallace Stevens, Gurdjeff, Robbe-Grillet … come on! Keep up!  Perhaps it was the characters intimidating me rather than the author (in which case, great writing!),  but I did rather felt Stead glaring at me every time I was obliged to hit google.

There’s a sub-plot, the mystery of who stole the (so-called) Cezanne. The painting itself has a strange provenance which makes interesting reading, but we know who stole it.  The sadness and wantonness of the result of this event I thought rather wasted as  a finale. Holy shit! That’s not an ending, there will obviously be a discovery and a reckoning and what happens then, to Max and the easy truce with his forgiving wife?  This sub-plot would have made a cracking main story.

Je Suis Charlie! is a sudden loud note against the background noise of political unrest, migration and terrorism – a rise in the tension that flickers in the corner of the story like an unwatched TV.  The Necessary Angel of the title could be many things, Helen’s lithium, Helen herself, Sylvie, or tout le monde who come out onto the Paris boulevards to stand against terror.

Put your sophisticated socks on, settle down in a quiet place and do read this book. Prepare to be agitated and frustrated by the characters, challenged by the story and then suddenly and often delighted by the very elegant writing.