Monday, August 8, 2011

Settlers Creek and The Larnachs

Preamble: My first book review for money is published in the New Zealand Listener this week so I feel compelled to spell out that what follows in not a freebie review. This is a freebie blog post. Just me, as a writer and blogger, keen to capture my response to certain books and aspects of those books as I go about my own fiction.

Settlers Creek by Carl Nixon
The Larnachs by Owen Marshall

Settlers' CreekThe Larnachs
Settlers Creek, the blurb: Box Saxton just wants to bury his teenage stepson's body in the churchyard near the farm where Box grew up. What happens, though, when the boy's biological father, a Maori leader, unexpectedly turns up in the days before the funeral and forcibly takes the boy's body? According to Maori custom the boy must be buried in the tribe's ancestral cemetery at the small coastal town of Kaipuna. According to the law there is very little Box can do. With no plan and little hope, Box gets in his old truck and drives north, desperate and heartbroken. Settler's Creek explores the claims of both indigenous people and more recent settlers to have a spiritual link to the land.

This is brave territory for any writer to wade into, and I think Nixon is able to present his personal-versus-cultural conflict in a powerful way. The protagonist, Box Saxton (*name cringe*), is presented in such a way that it's hard to view any of his actions as racially motivated. He is powered by a very personal sense of what is right (and it should not be forgotten he is acting under the duress of sudden grief and hardship).

In the later stages of the novel, however, there are walk-ons for a couple of characters who are allowed to air their dodgy views. Again, these views are rebutted by Box, both overtly (he denies his effort to retrieve his son has anything to do with 'sticking it to the Maoris') and by the general positioning of the narrative itself.

However, I think this book fails to be truly enlightening because it remains wedded to one perspective. It's clear that, in the rare glimpses into the world of Tipene and his whanau, Nixon knows more about Maori taonga than his protagonist, and yet it is quite something else to ask a pakeha novelist to present both pakeha and Maori perspectives with equal weight in the novel. But if I am to applaud Nixon's bravery for tackling a tricky issue, I must also point out that he could and should have gone further.

FoePolitics in fiction is not about National versus Labour (even in a roman a clef like Charlotte Grimshaw's The Night Book). So often it comes down to narrative structure and perspective: who is given a voice and who is shut out. There are a number of novels that deal with this kind of narrative politics directly -- J.M. Coetzee's Foe, for example, which give voice to the woman excluded from Daniel DeFoe's Robinson Crusoe story, while keeping the silence of the black Man Friday (his tongue is cut out) -- though these books tend to be good for little more than dissection in undergraduate EngLit courses.

Settlers Creek hammers home the point that European settlers can have strong and valid connections with the land and that one culture should not overrule another simply by default. The book's blurb might invite debate, but the book itself does not provide a forum for this debate. It feels instead like the Wizard of Christchurch holding forth in Cathedral Square: a one-sided diatribe that is superficially entertaining but hardly convincing, a spectacle that is somehow detached from reality. Settlers Creek feels quaint and nostalgic (speaking to a world where men in bush shirts communed with nature and didn't know two words of te reo); though it is set in the present and rife with personal turmoil, it's impact remains limited to one person when it might have been about two people (pun intended, somewhat uncomfortably).

The Larnachs by Owen Marshall is, in this respect, the inverse of Settlers Creek. It is set in the past and yet, by virtue of its narrative politics, it feels the more immediate and comprehensive book.
The blurb: In 1891, after the death of his first two wives, William Larnach married the much younger Constance de Bathe Brandon. But the marriage that began with such happiness was to end in tragedy. The story of the growing relationship between Conny and William's younger son, Dougie, lies at the heart of Owen Marshall's subtle and compelling new novel. The socially restrictive world of late nineteenth-century Dunedin and Wellington springs vividly to life as Marshall traces the deepening love between stepmother and stepson, and the slow disintegration of the domineering yet vulnerable figure of Larnach himself. Can love ever really be its own world, free of morality and judgement and scandal?
Marshall takes two verifiable facts as his start and end points: the marriage of Larnarch and Conny in 1891 and Larnach's dramatic suicide in 1898. There were rumours about an affair between Connie and Dougie at the time, but with rather less fact to go on Marshall is given the freedom to explore this relationship imaginatively.

The narration is handled in turn-about fashion, with Conny taking chapter 1, Dougie chapter 2, Conny chapter 3 and so on. Dougie's chapters follow Conny's but deal with the same time period as described in the previous chapter: in this way the reader is often given two perspectives on certain events, and always two perspectives on the relationship that is developing.

This is a marvellously written book. Marshall’s fiction has often employed a formal register, though this is his first attempt at an historical novel. The delight he has taken in the polished grammar of this bygone era is evident. I often read a sentence and paused to imagine Owen Marshall leaning back on his office chair, grinning, having just crafted it.

Similarly, there is mastery at work with the depiction of time and place through the deployment of historic details: Conny's respect for the writer Margaret Oliphant and sadness when she dies; the buggy rides from Dunedin to The Camp; the evenings spent with Seddon and Ward in Wellington which inevitably end with all gathered around the piano.

The Hut BuilderDespite the appearance of many figures and event which are still notable in our 2011 sense of NZ history, this book does not succumb to the “Shanghai Knights effect” (see here for an explanation of this common failing of historical novels). Larnach was a big player in colonial politics and banking and it seems only right that he (and Conny and Dougie) rub shoulders with the movers and shakers of their time. It also works when the Larnachs see Mark Twain’s lecture as he toured New Zealand in 1896, because it is believable people of their standing in Dunedin would have attended, and nothing pivotal hangs on this outing. Compare this to the fear that Boden Black’s mother has died in the Tangiwai disaster in The Hut Builder or his chance meeting with Sir Edmund Hillary later on in the novel. The presence of well-known people is part of the texture of Marshall’s novel, rather than the nodes around which the narrative is constructed.

However, while the choice of the two-handed, turn-about narration gives us a nuanced, multi-faceted view of the Conny-Dougie relationship (and also does a good job of painting the apex of the love triangle, Daddy Lanarch), there are down-sides.

While each chapter roams around the narrator's recent past, the narrative only moves forward in time every two chapters. As such, much of the novel feels static. There are very few scenes, in the traditional sense, and hardly any direct speech. In place of dramatic action, pages are given over to musings of the narrator, which, however well written, tend to drag after a while.

And, despite the laudable narrative politics displayed by the structure of the novel -- giving voice to the two members of the rumoured love triangle for whom we have only had rumour -- there is something disingenuous about how Conny and Dougie tell their tale. What exactly are these chapters? There is a distinct epistemological feel, but each character lays bare their innermost secrets -- discussing their love for the other before making their first moves; describing their sexual encouters -- that they'd never write in a letter to another person, not even to each other. Nor would they risk writing it down in a journal. Besides, what would prompt each to set down the events of the last few months or years at the same point in time?

So who is the audience?

Hold that thought.

Each chapter bears the outward appearance of a discrete, individual narration. That is, Dougie is not aware of the thoughts Conny has expressed in the previous chapter. However, on closer inspection, there is clearly another force mediating what each narrator tells us and how. For example, Conny explains in detail William Larnach's installation of a telephone exchange at The Camp and how he makes Dougie man the exchange when he'd rather be out inspecting the Alderney herd. Then, in the following chapter, Dougie mentions the exchange in passing without glossing it for his interlocutor, whomever they may be. Of course the reader knows about the exchange already, but how does Dougie know we know? Same goes with the buggy incident at Anderson's Bay, and a dozen other events or details.

So who is the audience of these chapters? It’s all for you, dear reader. It is the novelist’s hand you see again, intruding here and there to ensure the chapters serve the greater narrative rather than being hermetically-sealed monologues delivered to the ether.

Marshall is conducting the séance. His talent with pulleys and magnets is often, but not always, enough to overlook the fact he’s moving the Ouija board to his own ends.

Two more quibbles (and lets keep things in perspective here, this is a fantastic book, and quibbles < qualms < objections):

One: Conny dominates Dougie if we are to truly examine the equality of the narrative politics. Her chapters come first and are longer (often by virtue of Dougie not having to explain so much about what has been happening).

Neither character is that likeable (when are starcrossed lovers ever likeable?) but Conny is the more intriguing: an intelligent, strong-willed suffragette who discovers love with Dougie after marrying William for other reasons. Dougie is simpler, earthier and more insufferable. Whether it’s due to Marshall’s innate preference or design, it’s a good thing we readers spend less time with Dougie. But is it fair to him? Not really.

Two: Their voices are often indistinguishable. There are brief moments when Dougie resorts to earthier vernacular, but both narrators generally speak the same mannered 1890s dialect and both are prone to Marshallian aphorisms. Don't get me wrong, one of the reasons I read Marshall's work is for these aphorisms (it's one of the things that separates his books from the likes of Settlers Creek).

I noted down a number of these pronouncements as I read...
'How multifarious life is, and yet we assume our own activities and feelings to be the sum of it.'
'The best and worst of human behaviour can be so close together.' 
'All that's long gone, but memory is beyond conscious control. We can't choose our past, or ever quite bury it.' 
'Strange in a way, for otherwise I would not wish to spend much time in Brisbane. It is a thrusting, practical place that still bears much evidence of its origins...' 
'Every day marks some cataclysm for people somewhere in the world, yet presents a benign countenance to all the others.'
'Life often means a strange, almost comic, loss of dignity, but what the hell.'

The problem is I cannot instantly identify which of the two narrators said the above (apart from the last one).

Again, the writer's hand is showing, if only slightly.

But what do I want, really? How could Marshall have repeated the telling of the Anderson's Bay buggy incident in full from Dougie's perspective without boring the reader? How could he resist the urge to say something as neat and poignant as 'Like you young princes, we accepted it all as our entitlement,' just because Dougie was talking at the time? To fix one problem would surely have created another.

I said Nixon was brave to wade into the subject matter of Settlers Creek, and I must be even handed and point out the bravery at work in Marshall tackling historical fiction based on the lives of real figures. He comes close to the rocks of romantic (historic) fiction at times, but manages to avoid catastrophe because of the very structure I have nitpicked. The Larnachs is not so much the story of an affair as the anatomy of one. Spending time with these narrators is less about vicarious thrills and more about dissecting motives and actions in order to understand the human animal.

No narrative choice is perfect and there is no such thing as perfect narrative politics. There must be winners and losers, gaps and deficiencies, in every novel. The fact remains, however, that some novels are fairer-handed, fuller and closer to perfection than others.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Excellent review/blog post Craig. Re The Larnachs I also found the lack of direct speech difficult at first and your phrase 'the anatomy of an affair' sums it up well. By the end I had nothing but admiration for the way Marshall had turned my allegiance from Connie to Dougie and then William. I think the psychology of it was what I found most fascinating - motivations, self-delusion and justifications all artfully controlled and manipulated by the author.