Sunday, 26 January 2014

Huia Short Stories 10: Contemporary Māori Fiction (Huia 2013)
It’s great to see an anthology make it to number ten.  The Best of NZ Fiction seems to have stalled at six, and aside from independent publishers releasing collections from new writers, I haven’t seen a mainstream publisher release an anthology of new New Zealand writing for a long time.  The Huia collection includes short stories and novel extracts submitted for the Pikihuia Awards in 2013.  The categories included Best Short Story Written in English, and Te Reo, and novel extracts written in English.  There is also a category for film scripts (though these are not included in the collection).
Before I go on to discuss some of the stories in the Huia collection I need to say that I don’t speak or read fluent Te Reo.  I recognise a smattering of words but in no way can I fully comprehend the stories in this collection that are written in Te Reo.  To the writers in this collection whose stories are written in Te Reo I apologise that I am unable to provide a more detailed review of your work.  The focus of my review is on the short stories and novel extracts that are written in English. 
 The winner of the short story category written in English was Toni Pivac’s Joy Ride.  The judges made the right decision.  It stood out to me as the strongest story in the collection.  The story focuses on Whata who sneaks onto the back of his Uncle’s ute.  The story goes from a child wanting an adventure on a long afternoon to the child’s realisation of a change in his life.  It successfully ‘showed’ through the narrative what was unfolding for Whata whereas a lot of the stories in the collection did a lot of ‘telling.’
The amount of ‘telling’ in the narrative was the most frustrating thing in the stories written in English.  I wanted some authors to slow down, to take their time in the telling, to show me what was happening.  If they had done so, their stories would have had more depth and therefore more resonance with the reader.   
 Reflections on the past and returning home were strong themes in the collection.  In the first story by Aranga, the character reflects on his unhappy childhood with his adoptive parents and his search for belonging, and TJ Corrigan’s character is on a bus heading home for her father’s tangi and meets up with an actor from Once for Warriors who offers her some kindness when she needs it most, and Shelly Davies’s story relates an Uncle coming home.  There are also stories that incorporate myths.  I thoroughly enjoyed Arihia Latham’s story Ahikā which incorporated the story of Mahuika with the contemporary issue of fracking.  There are also stories of violence; in French’s Crushing Butterflies (a novel extract) Mia visits her ill mother with her child and they talk about Mia’s abusive partner and how she feels powerless to leave him.  This contemporary narrative is juxtaposed with a journal from one of Mia’s ancestor’s in which the ancestor relates her story of survival.  The inclusion of novel extracts is good in that it is an outlet for new work but on the other hand it’s frustrating for the reader because you are left without the whole story.
There are also stories of enduring connection - Korohina-Bowen’s The Kumara Box shows the love between husband and wife - and of disconnection in Jacquie McRae’s story.  There are also commentaries on social history; Eru Hart recollects the election of John Key as PM, but the social commentary is done more successfully in Horiana Robin’s story The University of Whakatu which recollects the transformation of a community from a freezing works town to one where some of its residents have embraced education and find their lives richer “in terms of being Māori” after the works close.

The Huia collection showcases a diverse range of stories and writers, and I look forward to next edition.


Monday, 20 January 2014

Wake by Elizabeth Knox (VUP 2013)

I haven’t seen or read a horror story since I was ten.  One of my older sister’s rented a Friday the 13th film and I watched it with her and my younger sister, Tania.  There was one scene in particular which put me off horror – a sword welding man lay under a bed and when someone slept on the bed the sword went through the mattress and the person who lay on it.  For months afterwards I checked under my bed before I went to sleep.  One night, I had been lying in bed in the room I shared with Tania, and I got up to go to the loo and when I returned to bed and snuggled down into the blankets I felt the mattress being pushed up from below. 

            “Taannnia,” I cried out, thinking she was in her bed and could help me.  My fears about the sword welding man were being realised, and I chastened myself for not checking under the bed again after my visit to the loo. 

            Tania didn’t come to help me.  She was laughing under my bed. 

            My terror was real and the circumstances in which it occurred were very ordinary which I think is one point that Knox is making in Wake.  Everybody was just going about their ordinary lives in Kahukura when the area is taken over by mass insanity.  As violence takes over most people, there are a handful of survivors who have not been affected but are left trying to live when they find themselves entrapped by a mysterious force.  The survivors don’t descend into chaos, rather they work together to ensure their survival with the resources available in the town.

            What I enjoyed in this novel are the strong female characters, in particular Theresa, the cop, and Belle the DOC worker.  The other characters are a reflection of the New Zealand population: Dan the truck driver, Jacob the nurse, and William the American, to name a few.  While it seemed quite fortunate that a nurse was amongst the survivors to help with injuries for those who did survive, what Knox does show is how the individual characters cope, how they deal (or don’t deal) with their own demons.  Lily handles the situation by running, while Holly cooks for everyone, and Oscar plays his video games in an attempt at normality while they’re holed up in the flash Spa resort.  That is what also struck me about the novel, where you might expect the power to be off and infrastructure down, the power is on so the immediate needs of cooking and washing are not problematic for the group, it is just the group’s movements that are limited because they cannot walk out of the ‘no go’ zone, which is like a force field that keeps them in, and everybody else out.  In contrast to the stark situation the characters are in, their immediate concerns of food and shelter are taken care of in a beautiful part of New Zealand. 

            One of the most salient features in the novel is duality.  The members of the group don’t know what to make of Sam, especially when Sam insists that there are two of her.  An intelligent and savvy Sam, and another who is not so quick on the up-take but who works physically hard for the group.  The division between intellect and physicality is like a mind/body split, but whereas a Cartesian dualism suggests that the mind is in charge, Knox challenges this notion and suggests that it is a synergy between the mind and body that is the only way the group can survive.

            I admire Knox’s writing and her imagination, an imagination that can move from literary fiction, to YA and back to literary horror.  While I don’t typically read fantasy or horror, the interactions between the characters are arresting, and Knox shows how disasters can strike at any time (as further proof there was an earthquake while I was writing this), and how people try to do their best when confronted by monsters who may, or may not, lurk under your bed.

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

The Big Music by Kirsty Gunn (Faber and Faber 2012)
My first review of the New Year is the NZ Post Book Award winner of 2013, Kirsty Gunn’s The Big Music.  While I may appear tardy in not reading it until now, I’ll admit that it has been sitting on my bedsit table for a while because I wanted to save it, to savour it, and also because I knew it was going to take all of my concentration, and a great deal of my time to read.  I’ve always enjoyed Gunn’s writing – the sparse language that evokes a mood, an emotional landscape that pulls me in – and The Big Music, which collates and retells the history of the Sutherland family, their house and pipe music, is no exception.

As a child I was scared of bagpipe music.  There was always a pipe band in the Christmas parade in Timaru, and when it marched by I would hide behind my mother’s skirt.  It was just too loud, too bovine like, and too close for my childish sensibilities.  As I have gotten older my appreciation has shifted, a little.  At Grandma’s funeral a piper played, so now hearing the pipes reminds me of her.  The year after my Grandmother died, my eldest sister walked home crying from the Christmas parade because the sound bought back her grief at losing Grandma.  That is the pipes’ power, to evoke emotion. 

Gunn’s novel follows the structure of a piobaireachd, the ‘big music’ of the classical composition of the Highland bagpipe.  One of the features of a piobaireachd is layering, so in parts of the novel words and phrases are repeated, and events are told from different perspectives, and a generation reflects on the previous one, and the one before that.  Names echo like notes throughout the novel.  Characters become well known and at the same time they become increasingly slippery as the reader tries to recall who is who, and then is told again, and again.  The structure is integral to the novel because a piobaireachd blends together words and music; while the chapter and section titles reflect the different movements of the music, Gunn’s words blend with those movements. 

The other interesting structural arrangement in the novel is the use of appendices.  There are footnotes throughout the book that refer to the appendices for those who want further information.  So, in some ways, the novel reads like non-fiction, or perhaps creative non-fiction.  I didn’t read all of the appendices, sometimes I found the intrusion a little annoying – I wanted to be lost in my fictional bubble without the reminder of the research behind the story - but at the same time I was amazed at the inclusion of the appendices, how it pushes at the boundary between fact and fiction, and how it challenges the way a family history is presented in fiction.
The story itself starts with John Sutherland, an elderly composer of pipe music, who has taken a baby into the Highlands in order to sit down with the child and compose a tune, but he has taken the child without the mother’s permission which understandably upsets the household.  While John walks across the highlands his story and that of his household starts.  There were several times when I was just awestruck by Gunn’s turn of phrase, and her emotional rendering of her characters.  What I particularly liked was the depiction of the female characters; their strength, practicality, capacity for love and ability to just ‘get on’.  It was those moments which kept me going; the novel is a demanding read.  Despite the repetition sometimes I wondered where the story was going, and as much as I knew the characters, I didn’t really.  These elements, I guess, reflect the modernist position of the work which is trying to reflect more accurately what is going on in characters’ heads rather than trying to tidy everything up into a coherent structure that makes sense of everything as the realism of the Victorian and Edwardian eras tended to.  The text is fragmented too, as dictated by the musical movements but also by the memory and remembering of the characters.

My appreciation of the pipes has increased.  Perhaps the problem all those years ago at the Christmas parade was that the Edwardian buildings of Stafford Street were crowded too close to the music, when the music needed space to echo and repeat, and not to walk in such an orderly fashion from one end of the street to the other.