We feature each fortnight Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“HOW TO GET FIRED - Stories” by Evana Belich (Penguin-Random House, $NZ37); “STRANGE SALLY DIAMOND” by Liz Nugent (Penguin-Random House, $NZ37)I have rarely come across a debut collection of short stories that is as knowing, even-handed, satirical, perceptive and compassionate all at once as Evana Belich’s How to Get Fired. Sharon Came’s Peninsula came close, but to get the same quality of literary skill you’d have to turn to an old master like Vincent O’Sullivan. The sixteen stories that make up How to Get Fired are in many different voices. Only five are written in the first-person – Evana Belich uses the confessional style with caution – but even the eleven stories in the third-person allow for a great degree of internality with the unspoken thoughts of characters revealed. In one story, “Moses and the Wax Bars”, the third-person narration is disrupted by what amounts to a long first-person anecdote. Like Sharon Came – and like Charlotte Grimshaw in her collections of short stories – Belich sometime links stories loosely together. Major characters in one story pop up in the background of other stories. A certain Josh Paley in mentioned in more than one story as a sort of glamour figure and celebrity. A company called Pacific Wave Plastics turns up in a number of stories, but featuring different people as main characters. And so on with many other examples, as well as the dove-tailing of a number of stories.
Although there are moments of levity and fun, it is interesting to find so many stories about regret, becoming old, facing the possibility of being fired or being deemed as redundant. More often than not, the protagonists are women. Five themes dominate this collection. Belich is interested in the relationship and comradeship of women; the regrets and frustrations women suffer; the status of men in domestic situations or in positions of power; issues involving society at large; and industrial and employment situations. The blurb tells me that Evana Belich was “a trade union official, a mediator and an employment relations adviser” and doubtless some of her stories have their roots in real-life situations. However it’s rather clinical to categorise Evana Belich’s stories in this way. Her stories are not advocacy for a cause, even when her sympathies are clear. They are nuanced studies of people, often with an awareness that there can be more than one valid viewpoint in a debate.
To begin with the stories most involved with comradeship between women. The story “What She Had” has a lesbian couple who have broken up. But one of them, Emma, is rather fragile, has a breakdown and needs to be comforted by the other, Vic. Vic soothes her with stories of how she acquired cats after the Christchurch earthquake; but in her thoughts she turns the shattered city into a symbol of her own desolation and her loss in an earlier love affair which ended so badly that she has never since found a satisfactory partner. Here the comradeship is clear, but with a degree of alienation. In contrast “Connie-Only Specials” – apparently set in the U.S.A.- concerns two women workmates, police officers who are protecting celebrities from stalkers. There’s the fear of redundancy as the older woman feels she will lose her position, yet the story shows her worth in an unexpected way. Though the contrast between the women is clear (one more experienced in her work than the other) the two of them work well together and on the whole the story is optimistic.
Of course the five categories I set out overlap. Stories about women cooperating can also involve women’s frustrations and regrets. “Episode 4” is the monologue of an ageing woman alienated from her children, remembering her flawed marriage and hiding herself in the fantasies of TV serials. “Auntie Lou” is a story of regret and envy with a sour punchline – an ageing married woman now regretting all the chances she didn’t take and annoyed at the attention her husband gives to their nieces. The most extreme case is “Christmas with Chess”, where the frustration boils over. Having missed many opportunities in life, a middle-aged woman is stuck with having to look after her elderly mother. Her angst is rubbed in by the occasion described, at a Christmas gathering, with relations and their children bustling around. By the way, Belich at no time suggests that the married-with-children state is ideal. It is flawed and can be fractious. But the mental isolation of the protagonist is severe.
If women sometimes suffer, it is often because of men. Let me make it clear that Belich is no practitioner of misandry and does show much even-handedness in dealing with either sex. But there are malign men in this collection. “Five Daughters”, set in the lunchroom of a factory, has two more worldly-wise women try to persuade a naïve younger woman that it would be a bad idea to pursue an affair with their married boss. Obviously the mature-aged boss has power and the implication is clearly that he has sexually exploited women before. The worst case of male behaviour is “Me and My Girls”. It reads like a perverted Walter Mitty story – a man fantasises about sex, which he is no longer getting from his ex-wife, and has homicidal thoughts about killing movie actors who get all the girls after whom, in his fantasy world, he lusts. And yet in the story “Moses and the Wax Bars” Belich show great narrative skill in allowing us to understand a man’s pain (he realises that he’ll never reach the ambitions he craves) even though we know his values are very questionable ones.
The stories addressing social issues segue into the stories of industrial and employment situations. “Housewarming” could be categorised as yet another story of a woman’s regret; but it comes closest to commentary on a current social problem – in this case the total unaffordability of houses in New Zealand cities, especially Auckland. In “Motivational Story” a saleswoman tries to train a younger woman in the art of selling plastic shelving; but the younger woman is undergoing an internal crisis as she wonders whether sheer materialism leaves space for any real human values. Does she really want to follow such a soulless occupation and is the money worth it? Though the very pragmatic saleswoman is telling the tale, it is very nuanced as we hear both sides of the situation – the necessity to work, even if it is soul-destroying, and the desire to be freed of it. Like “Housewarming”, “Peach Season” is a story of social resonance - the fight which working staff have in getting management to instal reasonable air-conditioning. The main main focus is on how tricky (and sometimes under-handed) negotiations can be. “One in a Million” picks up with the same dispute as in “Peach Season”, only in this case Belich inserts a subtle awareness of how some unionists can indulge in as much jockeying for favour, prestige and status as employers can. The titular story “How to Get Fired” (the last story in the collection) provides a sort of victory to an employee. A woman working in an aged-care facility is bullied by her boss. Knowing she is about to be fired, she at least has the consolation of uttering a sturdy come-back.
In stories of corporate work, Belich sometimes moves to hard satire, especially when it comes to the jargon corporations often use to give a bogus gravity to their plans, especially shown in the story “The Consolidation Phase” (In my opinion the best story in the this book and the one begging to be anthologised the next time somebody edits another collection of “best New Zealand stories”). At one of those corporate meetings, the boss talks about “consolidation”, by which, it is implied, he means down-sizing and possibly laying-off some people. After his spiel, the story’s protagonist has to come up with the acceptable corporate jargon, while his mind is distracted by domestic problems and by his team’s talk of their personal woes. The juxtaposition of corporate-speak and everyday speech is one of the story’s strengths. The other is the fine balance between the protagonist’s having to play the game and his internal struggle with his real desire to set it all aside. “The Consolidation Phase” neatly dovetails with the next story. In “The Consolidation Phase” , one character declares that he saw people living in vans on a beach, apparently carefree and not running after prestige or promotion. He says he really wants to live that way. In “Parked Up” we get the riposte. It deals with people who really are living in vans on a beach-front, and we are given a lively account of them – a collection of people are delineated. (It is almost as if this is a distant descendant of Katherine Mansfield’s “At the Bay”.) But the point is, in this case, that the apparently feckless life is far from ideal and quite different from the daydreams of a corporate man. No paradise.
I hope this survey has not left the impression that Belich looks only at the grim or depressing things in life. Nor is she an activist advocating for social issues. Her stories are written with nuance, with an awareness that the same situation can legitimately be interpreted in different ways, and with the knowledge that both women and men are capable of bullying, seeking status or being hurt. She also leaves us guessing in some cases how we should interpret characters. In “Five Daughters”, the narrator, generally presented as a thoughtful person, could be an unreliable narrator – or maybe just a snob – when, referring to fellow-workers drinking from coffee machine, she declares “I myself always drank tea made with actual tea leaves. English Breakfast. I enjoyed it and also felt my choice of beverage set me apart from the ordinary run of office coffee-drinkers. It was a sign of something, I felt. Of standards which would endure. Of a life beyond the office and the coffee machine…”
Let me also note that in “Episode 4”, Belich delivers a devastating truth about New Zealand even if it comes from the jaded view of a malcontent: “This is what happens when people live overseas for too long. They dream about back home and it’s all pohutukawa trees and barbecues. Everything is happening at the beach. Kids are throwing themselves off wharves into the blue water, their little backs curling inti ball mid-air, when the truth is that it’s all supermarket carparks and drizzle and wet flax like it’s always been. They think there’s nothing but whanau get-togethers even when they don’t actually have any whanau.” How horribly true.
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Turning from Evana Belich’s short stories, I come to a very different sort of book from a very different author.
Irish novelist Liz Nugent writes crime stories and has so far produced four popular novels, all of which were bestsellers and all of which involved grotesque situations. Strange Sally Diamond is her fifth, and it seems well on the way to being another major bestseller. It comes with pages of endorsements by critics, other crime writers and celebrity people in show biz, including a few New Zealanders because, while most of the story is set in rural Ireland, much is set in New Zealand. Liz Nugent took a road trip through New Zealand before Covid hit and was able to depict this country accurately.
Strange Sally Diamond is essentially a yarn and as I’ve often said, there’s nothing wrong with a good yarn. It is designed to keep the pages turning.
Living with just her father in a remote house, home-schooled and adept at the piano, Sally Diamond, in her forties, really is strange. She takes things literally. Her father once told her flippantly that when he dies, she should just throw him out with the rubbish. So when he dies, she literally does that. She drags his corpse over to the incinerator, dumps him in it, pours petrol over him and sets him alight. Of course this is a very illegal way of disposing of a body, and in no time the Garda (Irish police) are bringing a criminal case against her.
But Sally is strange.
Her literal way of taking things seems at first to be autism. In fact, it turns out to be PTSD – Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder – brought about by barbaric treatment she suffered as a small child. Sally cannot remember the first seven years of her life. She has blocked them out. It transpires that her parents – now both dead – were foster-parents who took her in, treated her compassionately and protected her from the world after she and her birth-mother had been rescued from a paedophile. He had chained Sally’s mother up in his home and sexually abused her for years, Sally being the outcome. Sally and her mother were rescued, but the abuser scarpered before anyone could arrest him, and there’s the possibility that he is still lurking somewhere is the world after all these years.
Fear not, gentle reader. I have not spoiled the novel for you. I assure you that this little synopsis covers no more than the set-up of the novel, at most the first 60-or-so pages of a novel that is 360 pages long. There are many twists and turns, as there are in all good thrillers. There are people who may be Sally’s friends and supporters or who may be exploiting her. There are a number of deaths along the way and there is quite a bit set in rural New Zealand. But that’s as much plot I will give. I know it’s a crime to spoil the surprises a novel presents, especially when it’s a page-turner. The whole purpose of a page-turner is to keep readers guessing and wondering what will happen next. And of course Sally herself, with her unique, literal, off-centre way of looking at the world, is engaging. If, then, you like page turners, this is the book for you. Liz Nugent has a fruitful imagination, keeps the yarn spinning, and had me happily following every twist until the end.
And if a yarn is what you like then that is all you need to know.
BUT (Oh dear! You knew that word was coming) in afterthought I do pull back from a few things. Let’s just say - without being specific - that there are big holes in the plot and many improbabilities, especially one character getting away with things in a most unlikely way. And let us question the mode of narration. Sally tells most of the novel in the first person. She is joined later by another character speaking in the first person. Both seem to be unbelievably perceptive, quite at odds with their formation and all the trials they’ve been through, and neatly feeding us all the details we need to know. Not much verisimilitude here.
But it’s still a damn good yarn.