We feature each fortnight Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“PENINSULA” by Sharron Came (Te Herenga Waka University Press, $30) ; “A RIDERLESS HORSE” by Tim Upperton (Auckland University Press, $NZ24:99)
If I were to devise an alternative title for Peninsula, Sharron Came’s outstanding collection of short stories, I would call it “Paradise Lost”. I live on Auckland’s North Shore in a suburb that blossomed about 60 years ago, in the 1960s, after the harbour bridge was built. Before there was a suburb here, this was farming land. Over the decades, suburbia has spread further and further north, up the Bays, usually contiguous with Auckland’s notorious urban sprawl. But now we have a new phenomenon. Affluent Aucklanders are colonising land in the further reaches of Northland, far from Auckland’s spread, gentrifying old farming towns, bringing in their habits and customs, plonking their lifestyle blocks in the midst of green fields in search of some fantasy version of rural life. (Suckers! Don’t they realise that new suburbs will always start growing where lifestyle blocks are?) The older farming ways are being expunged or belittled by the new arrivals. Forests and tramping tracks are being degraded by too many visitors. What were standard ways of life for many decades are being pushed into the dustbin of history.
This isn’t the only theme of Peninsula, and Sharron Came is never preachy or didactic. But an awareness of unwanted change certainly looms large in these stories and there is often a tone of regret about this.
Peninsula consists of ten short stories, each complete in itself but intertwined. In one story, one person might be a major character while in another she or he is simply a passing mention. In one way or another, whether they dominate the story or whether they are simply passing mentions, every story somehow refers to the Carlton family - ageing farming father and mother Jim and Di and their adult children, the twins Rachel and Jack and their younger brother Willy. Occasionally a niece or nephew may come into it, as in the closing story “Survivor” which otherwise has no connection with the Carltons. In this process, we get a panorama of different mentalities. How somebody is interpreted by one character may be completely at odds with how that character is interpreted in another story. One tale mentions a schoolgirl called Sophey, who is regarded as an awful swot, friendless and just chasing teachers’ approval. But in “Trailblazer” we get a totally different perspective on Sophey as we read her own story. To anchor the Carlton family in our minds, Sharron Came begins with two stories about the patriarch and matriarch, old Jim and Di, “Peacock” and “Hospital”. Jim’s ideas on treating his farm are at odds with his more helpful son Jack, who wants to modernise, raise different crops, and negate the old man’s habit of planting redundant spuds. Di has heart trouble and has to come down to North Shore hospital for treatment. The pains of age are clear in both stories and there is mention of suburbia spreading north from Auckland.
Sharron Came uses many different voices and tenses in her narratives – present tense in both the two opening stories, past tense in other tales, third person a number of times, first person in “Tramp” (told by Jack Carlton) and the very difficult second person (“you” ) in “Trailblazer”, which has the effect of allowing us to share the experience of its protagonist more than a first person narrative might. The author’s grammatical choices are always a perfect fit for what she is saying. Then there is her skill in creating the appropriate tone of voice for her characters. Take these two examples of masculine voices.
Here are the thoughts of old Jim, as he drives down to Auckland in “Hospital” :“Jim refuses to increase his speed. Radio sport turned up loud. Idiot host banging on about the Blues versus Chiefs match. He’s plain wrong. Has he even watched the game? Selectors are nuts. Don’t rate the Northland players always overlooking them, stick with blokes their side of the bridge. If they’d picked Larkin, the Blues would have won easy. They need Larkin. Same flare and intuition for bail distribution as Sid Going. Coach probably never heard of Sid. …” (pp.30-31)
And here, in the story “Anniversary,” are the thoughts of a young man called Ritchie, who has recently returned to New Zealand after time in foreign parts: “By the time he hits the Helm Valley he’s divorced the radio. Thick smudges of bush grease the roadsides. Wait, there’s a clutch of handmade signs. Ritchie slows the car, dips his headlights for a better read. Placards denouncing plans to build a landfill. Spelling’s a bit off. But too right, cities, eh, like to stick their rubbish out of sight in the sticks. Company will own a network of tips. Probably bought the land a few years back and quietly waited for the right time, after a council election’s a goodie. Secure consents, next play, dial in an outfit like his for the clean-up. Good coin in rubbish, not like recycling.” (pp.74-75)
Note in both cases the staccato style – parts of thought broken up into particles of sentences. This could signal decisive men quick at making decisions; but it could just as well signal minds that are ready to rush to judgement because these men have long since made up their minds and don’t wish to think any further. This is particularly true of old Jim with his fixation on sport.
Then there is that issue of the social and ecological change overtaking Northland, and not always for the best.
Socially, there is an awareness of the gentrification of sections of Northland – or rather the importation of middle-class urban habits and tastes, as Melissa (in the story “Horizon”) considers the spa where she used to work as a beauty consultant. She notes: “It wasn’t the same. The spa had expanded to cater for the influx of affluent arrivals drawn to the region’s rolling green pasture, pristine beaches and coastal wetlands. Boutique retail experiences, artisan bakeries, wineries, chocolatiers, sculpture parks and tiny potteries doubling as art galleries reeled them in. Horse trekking, bird-watching, guided fishing and yoga retreats. Golf courses with helicopter pads and luxury accommodation.” (p.112) And along with this invasion, there is the growing underworld of illicit drugs. In the same story, 38-year-old Melissa tries to pick up the pieces after her marriage to a drug-dealer and her own use of meth. (Yes, notoriously Northland now is a region which has wide consumption of Class A drugs). Destructive drugs are mentioned in other stories, especially as one of the Carlton siblings is part of that scene.
And apart from social damage, there is ecological damage.
On one level, the title story “Peninsula” is the most lyrical story in the collection, tracking Rachel Carlton’s progress as she negotiates a very difficult coastal track. As she does in a number of stories, Sharron Came is very precise in noting the flora and fauna of the New Zealand bush, but Rachel’s thought wander elsewhere. She considers the myth of New Zealand as Paradise, much promoted in tourist publicity, and she puts her finger on the abiding New Zealand sin – complacency (I would almost say smugness): “She had reached the point in her career where she had to choose. Either base herself in Europe or return here properly. Returning felt like retreating, a short step away from retiring, yet the shuttling between, the hypocrisy of it, shamed her. If she stayed here, there were ties binding her. She was afraid they would slowly choke the life out of her. She would miss the mountains, but the idea that Aotearoa was some kind of nature paradise was, to her, a myth. Plenty of beautiful wild places offshore wherever you chose to look, much of it appreciated far more than here. It sat beside the ugly, yin and yang. Complacency, it’s a transmissible disease in her own country. She found this disturbing, even as she knew she was complicit. This collective refusal to join the dots, to think the islands were immune to overcrowding, pollution, warming, habitat destruction, hard to see it ending well.” (pp.143-144) Rachel is also central to the story “Road” where she is ambiguous about how her childhood area has changed, mainly for the worse.
As for awareness that little pristine wilderness remains, there is Jack Carlton’s narration of “Tramp”, a story of three blokes hiking through the bush. As they enter a bush track, Jack notices “A potpourri of rubbish and weeds fringe the track, same as too many roadsides. Plastic bottles and soiled plastic bags, the little snap locks and the bigger supermarket ones, a few cans, takeaway coffee cups, tissues and toilet paper lie among the flat green docks, prickly bearded scotch thistles, yellow flowers of the gorse, broom, ragwort, dandelions and buttercups, crumpled blackberry bushes, clumps of twitch grass, sticky paspalum and biddy-bids.” (p.183)
I found so much skill in the characterisation, so much acute observation of realities, social and ecological, so much attention to detail and such accomplished use of tense and voice that I hesitate to say anything negative about any of these stories. But I will give one little quibble. The closing story “Survivor”, a very good story, concerns a group of Year 10 schoolchildren – that is, 14-year-olds - facing problems as they go on an orienteering tramp as part of a school camp. It is narrated in the first person by one of the schoolchildren – and frankly, she sounds far more mature than any Year 10 students would probably be. Almost the voice of an adult.
In reviewing a collection of short stories, it is considered bad form to pick out favourites. In this collection they are all mature and well-structured; but I was attracted particularly to “Preschool”, concerning the panic that grips a preschool teacher when she loses one of her charges; and the very thoughtful “Peninsula” and “Trailblazer”. As for the story “Tramp”, it becomes surprisingly suspenseful and menacing after first luring us into the bush. Other New Zealand authors have also produced short story collections that link tales in this fashion, like a loose novel, but I don’t think it has been done better that Sharron Came has done it. This is her first book and I hope it is the beginning of a fruitful literary career.
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I think I have identified one of the year’s best poetry collections. Tim Upperton’s A Riderless Horse is a great piece of work, robust, honest in its intentions and telling with raw power some home truths. But if it were read very, very selectively it could be totally misrepresented. So let me begin by giving you a very false impression of what Tim Upperton’s poetry is up to.
Upperton can sound despairing, as in his poem “Roadside Trees”, especially when its last lines declare : “Tonight you feel lost, as in a dark wood: / here is not what you wanted, or hoped for. / Hard truth is that you never asked for much, / and got less. How far still to go, how far.” A similar negative tone is sounded in “Writ on the eve of my 53rd birthday”. He can sound flippant or surrealist in “Television” or in the longest poem in the collection, “Three Men in a Lift”, a truly bizarre tale whose intent is rather obscure to this reader. And he can certainly sound wary of other human beings. The prose poem “The riderless horses” comes nearest to being the eponymous poem, and it very much expresses the fear brought into a home by the world outside. There is a variation on the same theme in the poem that follows it, “Door”. Beware of the world of human beings.
So are these the poems of a timid misanthrope who hates human company?
A hallmark of Upperton’s style is his wariness – which means that he is an acute observer of human behaviour. This does not mean that he is a misanthrope; but it does mean that he is a realist. Enjoy nature, he tells us, but don’t sentimentalise it. Enjoy the company of other human beings, but do be aware of their motives – and regrettably, in the real world we inhabit, some people have questionable motives and a lack of sincerity. Yes, he can be ironic about domesticity with “In Topeka, Kansas” and his poem YRROS (i.e. “Sorry” backwards) is very much about guilt and apologies. But look at the shrewd wit of his opening poem “My Childhood”. If you’re quick enough to recognise them, it is a melange of literary allusions to Richard III, King Lear, Robinson Crusoe, Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde and a child taking this all in as part of human experience. It is a poem about growing up and the power of growing up.
Consider “Game Show”, a prose poem referencing a familiar TV show played out on an island. It begins “Contestants are awarded points for cooperation and goodwill. Their kindness flows like unstoppable sweet porridge. The conch-blower hands the conch over to a guy who hasn’t blown it in a while, and the top contestant shyly gives her points away to the one coming last. There is no prize except perhaps a word, a nod, a look from the game show host, who is kindest of all.” This sounds like cooperation and the milk of human kindness until we realise that it is bogus. These people are, after all, seeking prizes and wealth. Their performative charity is simply for show. Is this cynical on the poet’s part? No. Upperton, by revealing the wrongness of such competitive shows, is implicitly reminding us that there are such things as real charity and compassion. Like a good satirist, he uses the negative to lead us to the positive. In similar mode “Sizewell A and B” captures correctly that phenomenon where people want to take “nostalgic” photos of quaint places; but the resulting image is always a lie as it edits out nasty modernity. To tell us that something is a lie is to remind us that there is such a thing as the truth.
Something similar happens when Upperton considers smaller creatures in nature. “Mayfly” concerns ephemeral, short-lived creatures. It takes its time to make its point but makes it very well – it is an image of both the brevity of life and the need to live it. Pair this with the poem “Sparrows” and we are reminded that these small creatures have a purposefulness in their lives which is worth our emulating. It is almost like the Biblical injunction “Go to the ant, thou sluggard. Consider her ways and be wise.”
And here we get one key to Upperton’s technique – irony. “The Truth about Palmerston North” begins “People like to mock my town, / they mock it for being too provincial / and too boring, and it’s true / that not much of import happens here / but I like it…” This is a long and dryly funny poem, ostensibly mocking the city for its shortcomings, which in fact manages to praise the place in a deadpan voice. When Upperton writes a “Love Poem”, it reads in full “My load, my lode / my burden, my treasure, / you are so heavy! / How long / must I carry you? / Forever? / Very well then - / I will carry you / forever.” To a cynic, such a statement could mean merely that love is an unnecessary pain which might be better avoided. So read it again and see the truth it is telling – real love means commitment, which can be difficult and burdensome, can mean having to negotiate things carefully, but is still a “treasure”, a reason for living.
The jewel of this collection is “Bone”. Its first stanza reads “The man is tired of digging. / The shovel is tired of the ground. / The ground resents the shovel, / and is tired of the weight / of the man standing above.” Stark in the simplicity of its vocabulary, this poem strips the flesh back to the bone. It is a secular memento mori which considers death and bodily decay in the grave – topics that on the whole get ignored in the present day. Life has an ending, which makes it even more precious. [Clearly it is this poem that inspired Duncan Munro’s cover illustration for A Riderless Horse.]
A Riderless Horse did not leave me in a melancholy mood. It delighted me by facing up to hard truths, not retreating into fantasy, and reminding us that there are right and wrong ways to live. What else is worth looking for it poetry?