Monday, June 25, 2018

Something New


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

“ROTOROA” by Amy Head (Victoria University Press, $NZ30)

            Five years ago I had the pleasure of reviewing on this blog Amy Head’s first book, the collection of short stories Tough. I praised it for its  “solid representation of place” but also for its awareness of history and the author’s sincere attempt to get the “feel” of a past age. The stories in Tough were all set on New Zealand’s West Coast, some in the present, some in the nineteenth century, and some linking the two distinct eras. Amy Head was clearly a writer who took the trouble to research the times she wrote about, especially when it came to matters of physical detail.

            These same virtues are present in Amy Head’s second book, the novel Rotoroa, which takes its title from the island in the Hauraki Gulf where, from

1911 to 2005, the Salvation Army ran a detoxification and rehabilitation centre for alcoholic men. (For some of that time there was a similar centre for women on the nearby island of Pakatoa). The setting is the late 1950s and Amy Head is as interested in the time as in the place. To a great extent, her three main characters, who do not really met each other until we are nearly halfway through the novel, represent three different responses to that era.

Most complex of the three – or at least the one whom the author depicts in most detail – is the teenager Lorna Vardy, only child of parents who live in Takapuna before that suburb became more exclusively for the very wealthy. (In the background of the story, the Auckland Harbour Bridge is still being built, so for practical purposes, Takapuna was then far from central Auckland). Lorna’s parents are impressed by the politeness and good grooming of two young American Mormon missionaries who come knocking on their door. They convert to the Mormon faith. But one of the young men gets 15-year-old Lorna pregnant before scarpering off back to the USA. Lorna suffers the common fate of a pregnant teenager at that time. While her parents discreetly move house (to then-semi-rural Albany) to avoid potential scandal, Lorna goes to give birth at a home for unmarried mothers, where we get such sad details as:

The girls had each been given a ring binder to file homecraft lessons in – patterns and recipes, diagrams of nappy folding and hygiene guidelines – even if most of them didn’t need to know how to raise a baby yet because they wouldn’t be raising theirs.” (p.50)

Of course Lorna is pressured to adopt her baby out, with unexpected results which Amy Head prepares carefully and which I will therefore not reveal here. Lorna is aware that she hasn’t lived up to society’s expectations and she has a hard time framing answers to prying questions which older people ask. As she thinks at one point: “It was easy to fail at the normality tests.” (p.75) She has her soulful and questing side – perhaps the idealism of her youth – and when people from the Salvation Army show her some kindness, she decides that they offer her the purpose she needs in life. She joins up. All of which, in due course, leads her to a period working on Rotoroa island and to a relationship with a rather colourless Salvation Army man.

Given almost as much space as young Lorna is the novel’s second major character, very different from Lorna in part because she is a real person. This is the journalist and travel writer Elsie K. Morton – known throughout the novel by her real first name, Katherine – who was a regular feature writer in the New Zealand Herald and other publications. Morton was a conservative, religious person, as fond of quoting scripture as were the Salvation Army people whom she visits on Rotoroa. It was Katherine’s practice every year to produce a feature article on the excellent work the Sallies were doing in drawing alcoholic men back from self-destruction. Morton is mainly depicted positively, but often she sounds unwittingly patronising. Her genteel manners do not quite mesh with the desperate men whom she meets.

Clearly Morton (who was nearing 70 at the time the novel is set) and the teenager Lorna represent two different generations of women. Morton is a stickler for well-defined righteousness and theological exactitude. For example, she mentally takes issue with one of the “steps” which Alcoholics Anonymous encourages its clients to follow, because it is not orthodox enough. At the same time, she is compassionate enough to intuit that isolating damaged men on an island is not necessarily the best way to cure them:

Katherine had found herself objecting to the third step, which called on members to turn themselves over to God as they understood him. She felt they were being encouraged to create God in their own image. It all tired and saddened her, was the truth of it, the compromises people were called on to make. There was always the strain of making do, and it would be foolish to think the patients didn’t feel every shortcut as evidence of their insignificance. They needed to be connected to the outside world. They ought to be able to receive visitors.” (p.147)

By contrast young Lorna is beginning to hear a different music in the times and to relate to a different set of values. She feels a kick seeing a short of Bill Haley singing “Rock Around the Clock”. She finds herself dancing to “Blue Suede Shoes” at the Olde Pirate Shippe on Takapuna Beach. This is different from her parents’ music:

‘One, two, three o’clock…’ She sang quietly to herself while squeezing the toothpaste on. The Thursday night hit parade. The rich pause and crackle of dust when the needle was placed on a record. Get ready, it said. Something was about to start. The crooners were kissing at the start of their songs and married at the end. ‘Will we have rainbows?’ Doris Day sang in ‘Que Sera Sera.’ No one got married in rock and roll. Side-tap, side-tap, back-forward. Dancing to Cotton-Eyed Joe’s ‘Big Beat Ball’ with her door closed. Stopping for Elvis Presley’s voice, sobby and unwholesome, in ‘Heartbreak Hotel’.” (p.84)

As for the novel’s third main character, it would be unfair to call him a cipher, but he is not given as much space as either Lorna or Katherine. This is the rock-bottom alcoholic Jim Brooks, who has apparently made life hell for his wife and three kids as he drinks himself silly, goes from job to job, and ends up on Rotoroa. Jim is more clearly a “case” than a character, but Amy Head is not dismissive of him, even if his natural habitat is the feckless, boozing, macho culture of the pub. From early on, you sense the essential loneliness of this man, with his inability to relate properly to others and with his mind gradually stripped down by the drink, as he tries to sleep on Rotoroa:

He might be the only one awake on the island. Just this burrow of light he had carved  out, and then nothing until Waiheke: corridors vacant, lumps in beds, chapel pews empty, snuffles and bumps in the barns. Only mice a possums, rats and cats scuttling crabs still active, and him.” (p.44)

I have seen one thumbnail “review” of this novel which says that it depicts “the 1950s, as rigid social codes in New Zealand are beginning to evolve and come unstuck.” This is true up to a point. In putting together the old-time boozing joker, the rather prim, well-meaning older lady and the teenager who feels hemmed in by society’s expectations, Amy Head is indeed making comment on New Zealand as it was 60-odd years ago. But her views are not as glib as this thumbnail “review” might suggest. Every age is in the process of turning into another, and Head nowhere encourages us to think that Lorna’s yearnings will necessarily be satisfied by the mores of the approaching 1960s. On top of this, and without revealing the mechanics of the plot, by novel’s end the older, conservative woman has come to understand an aspect of alcoholism that she had never previously considered, and has revised her values in a more humane direction. This is not presented to us in the form of a crude sermon or a too-obvious epiphany, but gradually and as credibly as such things can happen in life. We are not left to think that only the young turn in the direction of change for the better.

As in Amy Head’s first book, physical detail indicative of period is precise and well-observed (I enjoyed the quick reference to recovered alcoholic James K. Baxter reading Francis Thompson’s “Hound of Heaven”) and Rotoroa has been thought through carefully.

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