We feature each fortnight Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“THE DECK” by Fiona Farrell Penguin-Random House, $NZ37); “FROM THERE TO HERE – A Memoir” by Joe Bennett (Harper-Collins, $NZ23:52) ; (“PINEAPPLE STREET” by Jenny Jackson ( Penguin-Random House, $NZ37)
Some years ago I set out to read all of the Florentine Boccaccio’s Decameron, using both the (bowdlerised) old two-volume Everyman’s edition, and the (unbowdlerised) more recent, fat Penguin edition. I never made it all the way through the 800 odd pages, because (sorry) I soon discovered the sameness of so many stories – all those tales about monks bonking nuns and priests bonking penitents and extraordinary fortune coming to the deserving. I know this is very rude of me because the Decameron is rightly regarded as one of the great works of the early Renaissance and it inspired many imitations, with the likes of Jeff Chaucer and Bill Shakespeare using Boccaccio’s stories as source material (on my shelf I also have a copy of the Venetian Giambattista Basile’s Pentameron, written about 200 years after the Decameron and clearly inspired by it). In fact, the only tale I really latched onto was (Decameron, Fourth Day, 5th Story) the story of Lisabetta and her pot of basil, renamed by John Keats Isabella and the Pot of Basil (analysed elsewhere on this blog).
Fiona Farrell is very interested in Boccaccio’s Decameron, and in her opening chapter “The Frame”, writing as “the author”, she gives us an engaging 24-page account of the Decameron, its influence, how it inspired her and how it has become a widely read classic. But she is not a slave to Boccaccio. The Decameron has ten young adults (7 women, 3 men) fleeing from the bubonic plague that is raging in 14th century Florence and retiring to an opulent home as their safe quarantine. There they tell each other stories to pass the time – ten stories each day for ten days = one hundred stories. Fiona Farrell’s The Deck (presumably an abbreviation of The Decameron) has her New Zealanders going to a remote bay on Banks Peninsula where they are less likely to contract a new plague that is stalking the country. Farrell has clearly been inspired to write by the Covid pest, but this novel is set in the near future. Those seeking quarantine on Banks Peninsula are not young adults. Most of them are advanced in age, like the author herself, and with a lot of experience behind them. They are also mainly middle-class. They do tell one another a few stories, sometimes on the deck of two characters’ bach overlooking the bay. But they are mainly presented to us by the back-stories of their lives, which are related to us readers and not spoken out loud to the other characters. And they are in their refuge for only six days and nights, eventually leaving in conditions that seem like the ravages of Cyclone Gabrielle.
So here they are. Ani the artist; Philippa, an erstwhile judge, and her partner, Tom who sometimes have a tense relationship because one has long kept an important secret from the other; Philippa’s sister Maria who is protecting her grand-daughter Zoe from being caught up in a cult; the gay couple Pete and Didi – who for some reason is sometimes called “E’ or “e”; Baz the surfer, always trying to shuck off his father’s taunts that he was a “nancy boy”; and a few others.
Inasmuch as it is a collection of stories, The Deck is various in its interests and varied in its quality. Ani thinks of the animals on Earth that are being rendered extinct and how it affects the way she illustrates children’s books. To the group she narrates a story of being lost in the wilderness when a car was stolen. Without attaching names to each tale, there is a story of inept deerstalking ending in pure sexual fantasy; a tale of an unexpected birth; a character recalling childhood life in a rough run-down rural home, and yet remembering it fondly; a story of a father’s drunken abuse and how the family reconciled only after he was dead; and a tale (one of the best in the book) in which a character chooses self-interest and career over decency and morality, in a way that has repercussions for another person. Most bizarre tale, and with the most unexpected outcome, concerns one of the quarantined group recalling his days as a singer on a cruise ship and an odd request that two passengers made to him. Most improbable story involves the outcome of confronting Somali pirates.
But in this varied book, Fiona Farrell is as much essayist and polemicist as she is novelist – as was shown in her earlier books The Broken Book and The Villa at the End of the Empire. Speaking in her own voice as the author, not only in her opening “The Frame” but also in the closing essay “The Author’s Conclusion”, she speaks loudly about climate change and the too-widespread indifference to its problems. If plagues, which have been relatively common in human history, are capable of wiping out many thousands of human beings, could it be that climate change will wipe out all of us? And in this context, can stories and literature be of any help? Farrell raises awkward questions about the validity of story-telling. Are we deceived by stories? Do they enlighten us? Are they a refuge from reality? Is it actually worthwhile for her to write fiction especially when, as she sees it, climate change could mean that we might all soon be exterminated? And then there comes a condemnation of false stories in our age of both misinformation and disinformation and conspiracy theories and nonsense shared on line. The age of “post-truth” is upon us. Hence her condemnation of the destructive protests staged in Wellington by “antivaxxers”. Collectively, her address to us is one of admonition.
Personally, I enjoyed this book, especially when Fiona Farrell indulges her wilder imagination or lets rip with angry polemic. But I’d be hard pressed to call it all of a piece.
Footnote: Elsewhere on this blog, you can find accounts of other works by Fiona Farrell, her 2009 novel Limestone ; her first account to the Christchurch earthquakes The Broken Book and her scathing critique of how Christchurch was being rebuilt The Villa at the Edge of the Empire ; as well as her own selection of her poems up to 2020 Nouns, Verbs etc.
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There’s a strong possibility that I owe Joe Bennett an apology. Although I’ve read many of the light and often jocular columns he’s written, I’ve read only two of his books. Way back in 2012, I reviewed for the NZ Listener his Double Happiness, purportedly an expose of “how bullshit works”. It struck me as the same sort of easy-ironical and sometimes glib journalism found in his columns. In 2015 I read and reviewed for Landfall Bennett's novel King Rich, centred on the Christchurch earthquakes and a lonely old man hiding from the family who had abandoned him. While a credible tale, some of it read as interpolated journalism.That, I thought, was the only level Joe Bennett’s writing could reach. I now hastily pull my head in and admit that I judged wrongly. Written in his 66th year, Joe Bennett’s memoir From There to Here is a beauty, genuinely witty in places, thoughtful in others, and always buoyed by clear, unambiguous prose.
From There to Here covers the first thirty years of Bennett’s life, from early English childhood to when he settled in New Zealand in 1987 and stayed here. He was born Julian Bennett. He disliked the poncy name Julian and shucked it off early. His family came from the north of England but relocated to Brighton in England’s south-east. Brighton – town of decaying interest to holiday-makers, with its decrepit pier already being largely ignored by people who could now afford to take their breaks further afield, such as in continental Europe. Very vivid is (in Chapter 5) Bennett’s account of men and boys, like young Bennett himself, who found their amusement in fishing off the pier in fair or freezing weather.
Bennett’s father was a hard man, following the accepted mores of his time, but not excessively abusive. Even so, his disciplinarian ways turned one of young Joe’s older brothers into a bit of a rebel who scarpered from home as soon as he could. Bennett admits that, years later, there was a sense of relief in his family when his father died. Young Joe himself was more of a conformist than his elder brother. He weathered infant school and primary school noting, as all perceptive little boys do, how sadistic and violent little boys’ playground games could be. The game of “piling on” smaller kids sounds to me very like the awful “stacks on the mill” game I remember in New Zealand primary-school playgrounds. Bennett admits honestly that he joined in such games, noting “In The Lord of the Flies, I’d have laughed at the smashing of Piggy’s glasses and I’d have helped to kill Simon.” (p.50) He also witnessed – but did not take part in - the sheer sadism of even rougher games played by older boys near creeks or in neighbouring woods. Young Bennett loved cricket (it features quite a lot in the earlier stages of this memoir) and was happy with football (soccer) but was not interested in rugby.
The growing boy was of the generation where, in England, your fate was moulded by the Eleven-Plus examination. If you passed, you went to a grammar school. If you failed you were consigned to a secondary modern school. Bennett passed, went to a grammar school, and though he mildly rags and ridicules some of the teachers (it’s compulsory in a memoir of this sort, isn’t it?) he clearly liked the school and did reasonably well in learning. I share the horror he felt when he was confronted with calculus, being able to make neither head nor tail of it (me too) and shifted his studies over to literature, language and history (me too). There he did very well, revelling in the poetry of Philip Larkin and enjoying reading Camus’ L’Etranger.
But there was a major crisis when he hit puberty. He began to realise that he was homosexual. He often had crushes on handsome boys and young men of his own age. Always what ensued was friendship, with the young man in question being quite heterosexual, totally unaware of Joe’s real feelings and treating him simply as a pal. Joe played the part of being a regular, rough guy, taking part in larrikin-ish stunts, getting copped for drunk-driving etc. The odd thing about this memoir is that Bennett chronicles only two times he had sexual intercourse, in both cases with women and (in his case) with little enthusiasm. He does not make a big issue of it. Apparently he lost his virginity to a woman who seduced him in a graveyard, which at least adds an element of humour.
Bennett’s reward for his diligence at grammar school was a place at the University of Cambridge. As he tells it, he lounged his way through his time there, read what he wanted to, lazed, partied, and just scraped through a degree with the lowest of marks. Is he being modest? Maybe. But it seems clear that he was unsure of what he wanted to do with his life, apart from a vague sense that he wanted to write something. So he did what so many graduates do when they are at a loose end. He went school-teaching, first in a prep-school. Then he latched on to teaching the English language in foreign [European] countries – another favourite of those who aren’t quite sure what to do with their lives. After hitchhiking his way around France, he took an English-teaching job in Spain, thoroughly enjoying the welcome alien-ness of the country. And (in part supported by a modest legacy) this was how he spent the next few years – going from school to school teaching English.
It's in these sections of From There to Here that he piles on the tales of eccentric or strange language-teachers, grotty digs in which he often had to live, and comical mishaps – which were probably less funny at the time than they were in written memory. But, all the while hoping he could write something worthwhile (short stories? a novel?) he came to realise that jobbing his way through language schools was a dead end. He notes: “So I was left in the usual quandary. I could teach, and there were always jobs to be had. But there were also [fellow English-language teachers in the school where he was then teaching] who’d taught a year or so in each of seven of eight countries and who planned to carry on being peripatetic into middle age. I saw in them a warning of how easily I could delude myself that by moving on I was getting somewhere. Geography was not the answer, but I didn’t know what was.” (p.204)
He went back to England and took a diploma in physical education – not that it really enthused him, but it did give him a teaching certificate. And, partly helped by the prestige of having studied at Cambridge, he was offered a post teaching full-time in a senior school in Vancouver. In his holidays he took a hitchhiker trip across Canada in the freezing depths of winter. Later he took three weeks hitchhiking in the USA. I’m amused that while he clearly liked most of the Americans he met en route, his English perspective led him to throw in a barb, thus: “My one surprise from three weeks on the road in the states was the overwhelming generosity of ordinary Americans, their open-hearted friendliness. That aside, I had my prejudices pleasantly confirmed. It was a place dedicated to making a buck. It wasn’t strong on irony. Religion was more undisguisedly a business than it was elsewhere. And the whole country felt founded on the triumph of appearance over reality, of hope over truth.” (p.251)
Then a return to England. And a trip to Australia. And (by this stage realising he would never be a novelist) landing in New Zealand when he was 30. And securing a teaching position at one of New Zealand’s most expensive private schools, King’s College in Christchurch, at which point From There to Here ends. I wonder if Joe Bennett plans another memoir of his 36 years (so far) in New Zealand
What keeps the wheels turning of this memoir that I have thoughtfully synopsised for you? It is Bennett’s humour, his gallery of odd or slightly eccentric people, his confessions about himself, and above all his tersely-told anecdotes. The book keeps moving, is entertaining and is well-written. What more do you want?
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I’ll begin with an obvious confession – American author Jenny Jackson’s Pineapple Street is not what I would call my preferred genre of reading. I would suggest that it is aimed mainly at a young female audience; and the wrong sort of reviewer might dismiss it rudely as “chick-lit”. But that would be very demeaning. Though Pineapple Street is not my type of novel, Jenny Jackson writes with much skill and is astute at presenting in detail a certain type of social class.
Pineapple Street concerns the Stockton family of Brooklyn Heights - wealthy New York WASPS, living on huge trust-funds, property speculation and much inherited wealth. They are always concerned with the accumulation of even more wealth and the preservation of what they already have. The family is ruled by patriarch Chip and performative matriarch Tilda, but the novel focuses on three younger Stockton women - Darley, Georgiana and Sacha, who was not born into the family but who married the senior Stockton offspring, Cord. So two sisters and a sister-in-law.
The in-law Sacha is far and away the most sympathetic character in the novel. She came from an ordinary middle-class family, not exactly poverty; but she is frequently sneered at by Darley and Georgiana as a “gold digger” who has only married into the family for their money. This is clearly not the case, and she is capable of standing up for herself when she is attacked by snide innuendo. Darley is almost a sympathetic character. Her marriage is solid and she has set aside a career to raise her children, even though she knows this nowadays invites criticism. I think we are meant to see Georgiana, the youngest Stockton, in a positive light, but I can’t help seeing her as a bit of a twit, easily led on and foolishly having an affair with a man before she’s checked whether or not he is married. Later she matches up with a guy, another WASP inheritor of great wealth, who says that all wealth should be given away to the poor. The novel traces these three women through a year or so.
Before I get to the good stuff, proving the author’s skill, I note some major flaws. There’s some melodrama to push the plot along – somebody suddenly loses his prestigious job; somebody suddenly dies in a plane crash – but I’m not the sort of swine who would ruin your reading pleasure by saying to whom, when and how these things happen. I also think the finale is contrived, suddenly giving us a “happy ending” when sweetness-and-light prevails in an otherwise quarrelsome family. Or am I misreading it? Perhaps Jenny Jackson is being ironical and is showing us that the rich will simply go on being the rich.
Now for the really good stuff. Jenny Jackson gives us precisely-observed behaviours and fads of the American very rich. The superfluous “gender reveal” parties, lavishly catered, when somebody is pregnant. The “auctions” for the private schools they send their kids to, where people can show off their idea of philanthropy by donating exorbitant money for relatively inexpensive things. What is and is not regarded as acceptable food and behaviour at the dinner table. The special codes in which many of the rich speak. The fetishization of such things as playing tennis. The awareness that they are a people set apart from the general population. The ease with which the wealthy flitter around the world, usually on holiday, sometimes of business. And – most often emphasised by the author – the women’s way of dressing – dressing to make an impact on beholders, knowing how to pick out what is currently chic, what is passe, what jewellery they should wear and what they would be shamed by wearing.
In the end, Pineapple Street is a lively revelation of a certain social class, a sort of urban lesson in modern anthropology. This what I found most interesting about the novel and what kept me reading.