Monday, July 28, 2014

Something New

We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books

“THE RED QUEEN” by Gemma Bowker-Wright (Victoria University Press, $NZ30)

It’s a great pleasure to read a short story that is perfectly proportioned, closely observed and conveying powerful emotions without hysterics or striving for effect.  
Such a story is “Katherine”, the twelfth and last story in this debut collection by Gemma Bowker-Wright.
Step by step, a man watches his wife slipping into Alzheimer’s, becoming more distant and less capable of leading an unassisted life. She forgets the holidays and social life that they once shared. In the present tense are the wife’s growing incapacity and the husband’s growing depression and social embarrassment. Counterpointing this are the husband’s memories, in the past tense, of their life together. Sometimes, in these memories, the wife acts erratically. With great craft, as the author never spells it out, the husband’s selection of memories implies that what he once saw as harmless eccentricity he now sees as the harbinger of his wife’s disease. The story’s focus is tightened by its narrative voice – in the third person but limited to the husband’s viewpoint. The telling is almost deadpan. You could go carefully through the text and find few words that are designed to direct your feelings. But the accumulation of detail gives it real weight and presence as a domestic tragedy.
“Katherine”, the last story in the book, won the BNZ Katherine Mansfield Award for short story writing in 2011, when the chief judge was Owen Marshall. The eponymous first story in the book, “The Red Queen”, won the Sunday Star-Times short story award in 2010, when Charlotte Grimshaw was the chief judge. (It was originally published in the Sunday Star-Times under the fuller title “The Red Queen Hypothesis”). Appropriately, the short story writer at the beginning of her literary career has already been saluted by two established short story writers who know their stuff.
This is an engrossing collection. I found its quality so high and its stories so absorbing that I will dispose of my one complaint at this point so that I can get on with the serious business of praise. I think that in two of the stories, Bowker-Wright’s use of symbolism becomes a little pat – especially in the way the stories end. I refer to the imagery of underwater diving to represent the uncertainty and awkwardness of a relationship in the story “Breathing Underwater”. And I refer to the imagery of a man missing on a trek in the mountains to represent the absence and dislocation of a family when a mother has gone, in the story “Missing”. I hasten to add that, apart from this trivial complaint of mine, both these stories otherwise hold up very well to the high standards the author has set for herself.
Gemma Bowker-Wright is a young woman (still in her late twenties) and inevitably most of her stories reflect the concerns of young people. She can do much older characters (such as the couple in “Katherine”) but we are more often in the world of university students (“The Red Queen”) or a young woman in her first job (“On the Radio”) or a young man nervously sorting out his relationship with a new Asian girlfriend (“Breathing Under Water”) or another uncertain youthful relationship (“The Sanctuary”). There is a “liminal” sense in these stories – a sense of young people still learning their place in the world, or wondering if the rest of their lives is going to be similarly trying or (especially in “On the Radio”) working out the rules of social interaction and realizing that much of life is “performance”.
Specifically New Zealand landscape is evoked discreetly – Wellington, Hawke’s Bay, Nelson, the Matukituki Valley, the West Coast – but it is never the centre of any story. Bowker-Wright’s chief concerns are always with close relationships, between siblings, spouses, flatmates, colleagues or lovers. Often the relationships are broken ones, as with the son, long neglected by his father, joining his sister on a visit to the old man and his latest girlfriend (“Cowboy”); or as with the wife, whose own father walked out on her childhood family, having a weekend affair and wondering if she should leave her husband (“Rock Formations”). Adults frequently remember unhappy childhoods. Daunting or unhappy dreams feature in some of the stories and in some, characters raise the question of whether or not one should have children. Five of the twelve stories are told in the first person and most of the rest in the third-person-limited style, reflecting an immediacy of experience and a concentration on how experience affects the individual.
The author’s academic training and work are in science and there is a strong strain of scientific imagery in these stories, with references to evolutionary theory (“The Red Queen”, “Back to the Sea”) nature conservation and the possible extinction of species (“Endangered”, “The Takahe”, “The Sanctuary”) and meteorology (“Weather”). Characters often work in some scientific capacity (the husband in “Katherine” is a lecturer in science).
What impresses here, however, is the ambiguity the author often expresses about science as a template for fully functioning as a human being. In “Back to the Sea”, the narrator’s father is a research scientist who insists on filling his children’s heads with hard facts about evolution. But the narrator’s great-grandmother, halfway towards senility, feeds the children imaginative folktales about selkies. The story balances materialism with imagination and manages to come to no neat resolution. There is a need for both, but there will always be a tension between the two. Not quite on the same topic, but somewhere in the same general areas, there is “Weather” with its contrast of a highly rational woman meteorologist, fastidious about her health, and a somewhat hippie-ish “alternative” cigarette-smoking neighbour who is viewed quite positively. And the image of snow freakishly falling over all of New Zealand suggests the power of the unexpected.
Similarly, Bowker-Wright can also be fruitfully ambiguous about relationships. She will observe a flawed relationship closely while refraining from making any clear judgment upon it. Is the story “Cowboy” a lament or a celebration? The father is a feckless ageing bikie who has neglected and deserted his two children. There is no implication that he has literally abused them, but he is estranged from them and leaves his young adult son with an aching emptiness as he tries to recall the few occasions in his childhood when he had a chance to bond with his father. And yet, while this could be read as a comment on parental neglect, there are parts of the story that almost celebrate the cheerful, amoral, irresponsible happiness of the father, as if he can’t be any other than who he is.
There is one particular skill this author has which I can’t help admiring. That is her ability, especially seen in the story “Endangered”, to allow us to both share and follow clearly the multi-directional conversations of many different characters at a family gathering. This is a skill that the current Old Masters of New Zealand stories about families – Owen Marshall and Vincent O’Sullivan – also do so well.
The comparison is not excessive. The Red Queen is a collection of great achievement and promise, and the New Zealand debut I’ve most enjoyed since Kirsten McDougall’s The Invisible Rider.

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