The West Coast is so hot right now
The West Coast of the South Island has ignited the imaginations of several New Zealand writers of late. Notably, Eleanor Catton’s Booker short-listed novel, and now we have a short story collection by Amy Head called Tough (VUP 2013). The volume of stories mixes together contemporary and historic anecdotes of life on the coast. My usual reading practice with a collection of short stories is to pick my reading order by the titles that first entice me, however with this collection I read it from start to finish. I changed my reading practice because during my MA year, where some of my classmates were writing short stories, there seemed to be great importance placed on the order in which the stories appeared in their folios. I guess it’s much like putting an album together, the musician wants to create a series of moods and tones throughout the work so the listener can hear how each work relates to the other to progress the main theme, but also how each song stands alone.
Head appropriately gives her readers entry to the coast via the “West Coast Road.” In the opening story, Edward Dobson has invited Julius von Haast around for dinner, where they and Dobson’s son Arthur, sit around discussing land, road and water flows, as one does when one is a surveyor in colonial New Zealand. The story is engaging and shows the domesticity of men who tried to domesticate the land for European settlement. While the story is meant to be about the road from east to west coast, the people are the more engaging element of the story and I wanted to hear more about them (or to be more precise, the reimagining of them). At one point I could see this lounge room setting as the basis for a novel, but then the story turns back to the road, Arthur’s Pass, and we jump from references to Dobson to 1999 and mention of Google. On the one hand my desire to know more about the characters shows Head’s skill at characterisation, but on the other I found the abrupt ending a little unsatisfying.
It wasn’t until I got to the story “Flood” that I felt at-home with Head’s collection. The Constable coming across Robert Cooper, a prospector, and Cooper’s step-sister Ellen in a tent seemed a situation with many possible outcomes, as indeed it does to the Constable when it is suggested he take Ellen back into town. The surprise at discovering a woman in a tent on the coast in flood was similar to the surprise I felt when I first realised than one of the traveller’s in Mansfield’s story “Woman at the Store” is a woman. Mansfield’s story is about the inhospitable land and how the land affects the psyche, and Head’s too, is about violence and thwarted expectations.
The title story “Tough” links to “Flood” and “A Strange Story” by episodes of violence. The murder of a surveyor called Dobson, which is first mentioned in “Flood”, is expanded on in “Tough” where we are told that the Burgess Gang staged a series of robberies and mistakenly murdered a surveyor called Dobson (who I assume is from the Dobson clan mentioned in the first story), and then go on to murder another five men. The main character called Tough is caught up in the excitement that the reports of the gang’s exploits generate while he himself is ill and seeks a remedy. When he’s a little better and working on a ferry coach he witnesses the bodies of two men floating by. Both men are missing their eyeballs. We find out more about these men in “A Strange Story.” It is these connected stories which are the most satisfying in Head’s collection. They do what all good connected stories do - retell incidents through different perspectives so the reader can see how large these incidents loom in the individual character’s life. Realising the connections of these stories made me go back and re-read the earlier stories, particularly to see if Duncan’s wish to be a sinner (in the story of the same name) was actualised by him being a member of the Burgess Gang, but I could see no obvious link.
The contemporary stories have no such connection that I can see, aside from their setting on the West Coast. We have outsiders travelling to the coast such as the female American erotic costume designer taking part in a duck plucking competition at the local pub, a young man working at a hardware store about to go on a work-do, and coasters working in a kitchen where tourists are served and love is thwarted, amongst others. While these scenarios are interesting and contrast the outsider status of visitors, and those who are considered outsiders within the coast community, they do not have the same resonance as the historical stories do.
Head’s short stories are accomplished, and she has managed to incorporate historical detail seamlessly in her narrative. She is very skilled at describing the landscape and the descriptions of water - its channelling, flooding and wealth - is like another character that links her stories together. What her and Catton’s novel make me question is why the West Coast, and why now? Sure, the books have the same publisher (as does Pip Adam whose new book is also set on the West Coast), but I don’t think this is a defining factor as Charlotte Randall’s Hokitika Town (Penguin 2011) seemed to start off this literary West Coast fever. But I do keep asking myself what the return, the re-imagining, of the colonial West Coast says about contemporary New Zealand literature, and what postcolonial inferences can we take from this revisiting? Why is the West Coast so hot right now?