Monday, September 19, 2016

Gerry Webb on Raewyn Alexander and Dominic Sheehan

The 95th in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is from the August 1996 issue. The lead book review was David Eggleton on Sue McCauley’s novel A Fancy Man, followed by Barbara Else on E Annie Proulx’s novel Accordion Crimes, Kevin Ireland on Jan Corbett’s non-fiction crime debut Caught By His Past and Sheridan Keith on Elizabeth Smithers’ journal The Journal Box. Here is Gerry Webb on two first New Zealand novels.

by Raewyn Alexander
Penguin, $24.95, ISBN 0140260374
by Dominic Sheehan
Secker & Warburg, $19.95, ISBN 0790004623
Auckland poet Raewyn Alexander’s first novel fairly crackles and pops. The sheer dash and bite of her language make for a densely packed and colourful text with lots of great lines. The narrator is Poppy, maid and minder to Iris, a well-to-do hooker, “a whore through and through”. Poppy’s sharp intelligence ducks back and forth over her history and contacts — middle-class origins in Avondale, waiting at tables, university, a relationship with a dope grower, work at a London sex club, the underworld of the Auckland sex industry. At the same time she relates the sinister developments resulting from her delivery of Iris’s blackmail note to a wealthy, titled sleazeball in the Waikato. It’s a narrative which shifts and weaves.
Poppy has a strong, sometimes combative voice; she gets in a few punches against “the system” and at the end, when she and her five-year-old daughter flee Auckland for the bosom of her family, she finds in Marxism “the theory to back up what I’ve always felt”. It’s not a subtle option or a very satisfying ending. In fact the novel loses some of its brilliant edge in the latter stages as Poppy seeks normality in her family and with a local lad on the Firth of Thames.
But the main part, the characters and scenes in and around Auckland and the sex business, is outstanding. Especially brilliant are dangerous, decadent Sir Arthur (“an old walrus full of fish”), boss lady Ho in her 80s and Iris with “the hard seagull eyes”. A luscious and coruscating book — I was hooked on the first page.
Life was never more intense and hair-raising than that year in Standard Three: a treacherous teacher, playground fights, parents’ arguments spilling from behind closed doors, a big sister who leaves home without a blessing, small-town hostility towards dad — my Standard Three in Cheviot, North Canterbury, in the mid-50s? Not quite; but Dominic Sheehan’s Finding Home, the story of Kevin Garrick’s year in a small Taranaki town in the mid-70s, rang a few bells.
Kevin says at the outset that his adult self keeps getting in the way of his attempt “to listen and think as I was then”, but in fact his story beautifully recreates the world of the child, and this is the major strength of this disarmingly fresh and gripping book.
Especially authentic is the private nature of the child’s world that we are shown — Kevin’s relationships, fantasies and humiliations, his genuinely scary encounters with others’ nastiness and suffering are not things that he can tell his parents about. At times I thought of Ronald Hugh Morrieson’s young protagonists, but though this novel skirts the macabre it is a much gentler creature and opts for language that is low-key, sometimes rather ordinary, but always transparent. Sheehan’s sympathetic characterisation and tense story-line will appeal to both adults and teenagers.

I had done some work on Raewyn Alexander’s Fat. The submitted draft was a bit of a mess but her talent shone through. I wrote a supportive reader’s report (“The manuscript needs a major overhaul, but what’s good in it is very good… There is no other writer in New Zealand doing what Alexander does when she hits the mark.”) with suggestions for how the m/s might be made publishable, basically shifting many of the scenes set in England to New Zealand because she was so sharp about life and class here. I was astonished at how quickly she did that  within weeks, from memory. My second report said, “An incredible improvement.” That revised version, which is what was published, was every bit as good as Gerry says.

One of the great pleasures of working as a publisher’s reader was discovering new talent. After Raewyn came writers such as Kelly Ana Morey, Linda Olsson, Hamish Clayton. You knew from the first page – the first paragraph, even – that here was a major new voice. Reading manuscripts can be tedious, but this was seriously exciting. And in each case, a star was born.

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