Monday, August 16, 2021

Something New

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

“CRAZY LOVE” by Rosetta Allan (Penguin, $NZ36); “STRONG WORDS #2 – The best of the Landfall Essay Competition” Selected by Emma Neale (Otago University Press, $NZ35); “BEACHCOMBING – A guide to seashores of the Southern Hemisphere” by Ceridwen Fraser (Otago University Press, $NZ30)

Here’s a problem for me as a reviewer. How do I categorise Rosetta Allan’s third novel Crazy Love? At the very least I can say it’s very different from her first two novels (both reviewed on this blog) Purgatory and The Unreliable People . They were both carefully-researched and scrupulously-plotted novels with historical settings, one in nineteenth-century New Zealand and the other in Russia both during and after it was the Soviet Union.

But Crazy Love?

It is written confessionally in the first person. The back-cover blurb tells me it is “based on the author’s own experiences”. At the end of the text, there’s a photo of Rosetta Allan and her husband James shortly after they were married in 1984. In her acknowledgements Rosetta Allan thanks, inter alia, “Billy-bold - my James”. “Billy” is the husband of the first-person narrator “Vicki” in Crazy Love, and most other characters are simply given generic names such as “sick dolly-bird” or “highwayman” or “divorced of Mt Eden.” The fact is, Crazy Love does not read like a novel, but like a memoir. In some respects it resembles recent confessional memoirs by other New Zealand women such as Caroline Barron’s Ripiro Beach (medical and physical trauma) and Charlotte Grimshaw’s The Mirror Book (personal and family trauma). I’ll respect the author’s choice and refer to Crazy Love as a novel. Perhaps Allan has added a few fictitious moments to the record, softened things here,  excluded things there. So just for this review a novel it is, and Vicki and Billy are its people.

What trauma is recorded here?

The first part of Crazy Love is called “Before”. This is Vicki in 1983-84, in the years of Robert Muldoon to whom she writes some angry letters. She is eighteen-going-on-nineteen. She regards the town she lives in – Napier – as a joyless, provincial dead-end. She cohabits with a guy she calls only “loser-boyfriend”. Together they just scrape up enough money to live in a seedy boarding house she calls Dire Straits. They have plenty of sex. She has an abortion. The effect of this messes things up for her when she’s trying to find a job. “Loser-boyfriend” can be violent, takes plenty of drugs, hangs out with thuggish hoons, gets involved in pub brawls, burglary and other petty crime. There’s much sordid grot in this life. Vicki does drugs too. Once she goes into a psychedelic frenzy on cactus juice and smashes things up.

Vicki comes across as a young woman who is intelligent enough to know that her life is going nowhere, but doesn’t yet know how to make it go somewhere.

Enter Billy. He has a room in Dire Straits. He’s a punk who can lose it, rage, and do brawls when provoked. He takes part in burglaries, forges cheques, steals. He has false teeth because his teeth were all rotted out by the drugs he took. But he’s a stylish punk. A cool punk with drainpipe black jeans and blonde hair standing up with gel. And he is clearly going somewhere. He’s halfway to being an artist and he has a foot in the door in either advertising or marketing. And (with “loser-boyfriend” raging and wanting to get her back), Vicki moves in with Billy.

In all this, note that Vicki does most of the active wooing. In fact, this part of Crazy Love is one of the most delicately expressed as she becomes more and more interested in Billy. The tone can only be called Romantic, with a formal proposal, moonlight on the sea and all. And there’s this major turning point in young Vicki’s life when Billy says “You’ll be our next Katherine Mansfield.” Vicki comments: “I had no idea who Katherine Mansfield was any more than Tennyson, so I had no gauge of this vast and ridiculous compliment. But it felt so lovely having someone beside me, believing in me like that. I’d heard big talk before to get me in the sack. You and me, we’ll do this and this. I’ll take you there and there. It was always the benchmark to know when to get the hell away from a guy. Only, I didn’t want to get away from this Billy and all his promises. Something in his words wrung [sic] true – not the Katherine Mansfield part, but the writer part. And I liked the idea of that.” (p.99)

They marry soon after, when their first child is on the way.

And at this point you are raging at me, aren’t you dear reader? All I’m doing is giving you a synopsis when we both know that mere synopsis is the enemy of real critique. Fear not. I’ve walked you through only the first third of Crazy Love. The set-up. For the deeper trauma comes only in the second section, “During” which takes up the bulk of the novel.

I won’t labour over this. It is 2012. Vicki and Billy have been married for nearly 28 years. They’re middle-aged and their two adult kids are gone. They’ve had their ups and downs, had a lot of money, lost a lot of money, had flash cars, lost flash cars, had an art collection, had to downsize houses, sometimes lived a life of Auckland bourgeois success with him heading for an arts degree and doing corporate advertising and marketing work and her getting on with her serious writing and helping out with his firm.

Sometimes she suffers severe depression, but that’s not the trauma. The trauma is Billy’s “mood swings of undiagnosed mental illness” (p.152). Billy is severely, severely, severely manic-depressive. This is the real crazy love. Love is a crazy, irrational thing and Vicki loves Billy; but Billy is mentally sick and literally crazy. He sells off some of their assets for no rational purpose. He threatens to commit suicide and makes plans to do so. He contemplates running off with another woman then weeps about it. He may not have been “physically unfaithful” but he has been “spiritually, emotionally and cognitively unfaithful.” (p.242) He carries out silly pranks like stealing road signs. He hides under the house. He shouts. He has huge, unrealisable, irrational plans. Violence is always potential. When Vicki manages to get him into psychiatric care, a nurse says Billy has “bipolar mania delusion.” (p.293)

Yet Vicki remains devoted to Billy for all the hurt. When a woman (called only “no-longer friend”) mocks her for being financially dependent on Billy, Vicki reflects “Billy changed me for the better right from the start. I am not made weaker because of our relationship. I am made more substantial.” (p.189) Billy gives her life meaning and she sticks with him, trying to weather out his mental storms and doing her best to help him overcome his sickness. Vicki loves him.

Okay, okay cynics. I know what you’re thinking. Expressed as I have expressed it, this sounds dangerously like one of those uplifting, soapy disease-of-the-week shows they used to have on Sunday evening television. Love conquers all. Plucky, devoted wife brings troubled husband back from the brink. Roll credits. But Crazy Love is not like that. Vicki’s version of love is hard and realistic. So is the author’s terse style. “Love is endurance” says Vicki (p.166), which in a way means love is commitment, even through the craziness and verbal abuse. And the book’s coda, called “After”, bringing the story up to date in 2020, does not suggest a happy-ever-after. Even the best marriages are constantly negotiated and re-negotiated. Does anybody now remember a piece of horse manure from the 1960s called Love Story? It was marketed with the slogan “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” Bollocks! Love means having to say you’re sorry ten thousand times and then another ten thousand times. Love endures but marital peace is always provisional.

So Crazy Love is candid and uncompromising as it charts both a wild, self-destructive youth and a marriage made difficult by mental health issues. But it nowhere falls into self-pity. Rosetta Allan’s optimism, practicality and commitment are infectious. So’s her style. It’s compulsive reading.

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Strong Words #2 is the second collection of long-listed essays from the Landfall Essay Competition, once again selected  and introduced by Emma Neale.

It follows on from the first Strong Words collection reviewed on this blog in 2019. In her introduction to the earlier collection, Emma Neale emphasised that essays come in many different forms. There is no set template for the essay. Her introduction to Strong Words #2 begins with her referencing an angry letter she received from an unnamed reader, who said that too many Landfall essays were solipsistic, by which the reader presumably meant that too many essays were self-obsessed, personal and confessional. Emma Neale does not dismiss the reader’s complaint out of hand, but does argue that many good essays may begin with the very personal, but then work their way to connecting the personal with the public. Major human issues emerge from very personal observations.

I can certainly see how this works in many essays but perhaps not in all. In these very varied 25 essays (18 by women, 7 by men – about the same gender balance as in the earlier collection), there are at least a few that really are solipsistic in the pejorative sense. But I won’t dwell on them. Nor will I attempt to synopsise or comment upon every essay. Two of the best essays appear elsewhere in print – Siobhan Harvey’s wrenching account of an abusive childhood “Living in the Haunted House of the Past”, which also appears in her poetry collection Ghosts (reviewed on this blog ); and Gilian Sullivan’s “The Art and Adventures of Subsistence”, about trying to survive on very little income, which appears in her essay collection Map of the Heart (also reviewed on this blog). Two essays are, in effect, very engaging book reviews, both of them referencing in some form climate change. In “The Certainty of Others”, John Horrocks looks at recent New Zealand novels that posit apocalyptic outcomes from climate change. In “Water Says Things So Clearly”, Wendy Parkins gives the best analysis I’ve yet read of Robin Hyde’s novel Wednesday’s Children, which was written way back in the 1930s, and pairs it with Pip Adam’s recent novel The New Animals. Both novels immerse themselves in the sea and suggest a different way of looking at it. (Wendy Parkins’ memoir of depression, Every morning, so far, I’m alive, is reviewed elsewhere on this blog .)

If I were to nominate the quirkiest essay in this collection, it would have to be Matt Vance’s “Lines of Desire” with his mapping of human behaviour by noticing the directions in which people walk. Ultimately the cheerfulest essay must be Emily Duncan’s “Character-Building”, an account of not making it in a New York drama school. We at first expect a tale of failure and woe, but it moves towards a resilient shrug of the shoulders. And the essay that provoked the most thought for me was  Tan Tuck Ming’s somewhat postmodernist “My Grandmother Gliches the Machine”, a complex and intellectually satisfying essay sounding out the rationalist idea that apparent reality is simply a structure created by language. You don’t have to agree with this concept to enjoy that subtleties of Tan’s argument.

At this point, I could list the essays that didn’t appeal to me – the one that tried too hard to be funny; the one that overdid the punnery and cheap shots in denouncing colonialism; the one that pleaded for public expression of emotions while telling us about the author’s love-life etc. etc. not to mention the ones that really were solipsistic. But then I realise other readers might find these very essays the cream of Strong Words #2.

To be thoroughly solipsistic, I learnt some things about myself in reading all these essays. One discovery was that I really like essays that make a case, or express a preference, clearly and without too many digressions. So to conclude this review, here is my personal selection of the most outstanding essays, all of them marked by their uncompromising clarity of expression.

·      Ingrid Horrocks’ “Ordinary Animals”  (a modified section of her book Where We Swim). Her narrative of a family’s experiences really does move coherently into a general address on climate change and rising sea levels.

·      Tim Grgec’s “Drinking More Fruit Juice Won’t Help”, a stately elegy for his late mother, taking in the experience of living with cancer.

·      Sarah Jane Barnett’s “Unladylike”, part polemic, part memoir, arguing that femininity (and masculinity) are just performative. Not a wholly convincing asrgument – it runs into the wild territory of assuming that gender and sex are not the same – but clearly stated.

·      Anna Knox’s “Ziusudra & the Black Holes” – quite daring of her to submit an essay on such an esoteric topic, but a really engaging piece querying whether the first authentic writer of essays, thousands of years ago, might have been a woman.

·      Himali McInnes’s socially engaged “This Place”, at once celebrating the South Auckland community where she is a GP, but also examining and criticising the reasons for the area’s poverty.

·      And finally my choice for the best of the best, Shelley Burne-Field’s “If the words ‘white’ and ‘sausage’ in the same sentence make you uncomfortable, please read on”, based on personal experience and a blistering attack on casual racism. It’s not only the subject matter that buoys it, but the no-nonsense way in which it is expressed.

Very well. Other readers will judge differently, but all criticism is subjective. Please remember that.

Pedantic and Nitpicking Footnote: I do not wish to denigrate John Horrocks’ enlightening essay, but I was taken aback by the fact that the same central character in a novel he analyses is called, on different pages, Zac Hobson, Zac Hudson and Zac Hodson. Were the typesetters fiddling around or am I missing something?

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I’m not an expert on marine biology or on littoral life-forms and therefore I can’t make a scientific judgment on Ceridwen Fraser’s Beachcombing – A guide to seashores of the Southern Hemisphere. But I do know that this slim (114 pages) book gave me great pleasure and will continue to do so for a long time. Ceridwen Fraser is an associate professor of Marine Science at the University of Otago. I’m one of those useless humanities people who took degrees in literature, languages, philosophy and history. But I’m now also a volunteer guide at Tiritiri Matangi, one of New Zealand’s open-bird-sanctuary islands, and I’m rapidly beefing up my knowledge of native birds and plants.

In my guiding, what I’ve aways lacked is an account of what lands on, or is left on, the shore. Now I’ve got it.

In Beachcombing – A guide to seashores of the Southern Hemisphere, Fraser takes us systematically through the dynamics of currents and waves; the things that are left on the shore (including – alas – much plastic); the life forms that exist or survive on southern shores; things that rise to the surface from the depths of the sea; seabirds; large sea-creatures (like squid); and the way seeds and plants migrate from shore to shore. And it is all written in non-specialist language for non-scientists like me. Beachcombing is designed for the general reader with all unfamiliar names of plants and creatures duly explained. Because this text deals not only with New Zealand shores, but with the whole Southern Hemisphere, there is also a glossary page giving Australian Aboriginal, Maori and Chilean equivalents of sea-releated terms.

One of its chiefs assets is, of course, its many illustrations – everything from a big, fat sea elephant resting on kelp to the tiny structure of grains of sand, some of which have biogenic material; from sea tulips to shark-egg capsules; from seahorses to ambergris.

            This isn’t the type of book I’d give away after reading.

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