Charlotte Randall is one of contemporary New Zealand literature’s most accomplished novelists, and The Bright Side of my Condition is her seventh novel. The narrative is about four convicts who have escaped the penal colony of Norfolk Island and have been deposited on a remote island in the Southern ocean by a Captain who promises to pick them up in a year. He doesn’t. The story of the men’s life on the island is told through the perspective of Bloodworth who comments on his relationship with his fellow castaways Gargantua, Toper and Slangam.
The four men have very different personalities. Bloodworth professes to be lazy but enjoys observing nature on the island, Gargantua believes himself the font of European knowledge, Slangam is a worker, and Toper has a religious bent. Throughout the novel we learn how the men ended up at Norfolk and how they escaped onto the ship, and are deposited on the island. The four men represent different belief systems and ways of approaching life. While Gargantua relies on his knowledge, and Slangam finds meaning in life through work, Toper prays, while Bloodworth observes and thinks about different ways of existing on the island without the structures of society determining their actions.
However, as soon as they are on the island Slangam provides a structure for their existence and survival on the island which involves practical things like getting firewood and building a hut, but it also involves the structure of law. At one point Bloodworth is punished for stealing potatoes and the penal system he thought they had left behind is enacted. Although the prisoners are free on the island they enact the system of law which is an example of Louis Althusser’s Ideological State Apparatus. The prisoners recognise themselves in the values of the dominant class from which they come and reproduce the ideology by becoming jailers. Bloodworth comments that, “The nonsense is that free on our island we fashion a little replica of what we come from, a sad little copy of the big world.” Freedom, and what is done with it, is questioned throughout the novel.
The novel is also metaphorical in that it references story; the correct way of relating a story, and stories the men remember. At one point the men are discussing Robinson Crusoe and Gargantua notes that readers have to suspend belief to go along with the story, to which Slangam replies, “Yer have to be a fucken idiot.” The facts of story, whether there should be facts in fiction or not, is debated by the men. Gargantua notes that the basis of Robinson Crusoe was Robert Knox’s story of shipwreck, to which Toper replies, “that second one were the real story and Crusoe weren’t,” to which Gargantua replies, “the second only provide the facts for the first, that aint enough for a story, in fact it weren’t a fucken story at all.” It is certainly a more lively debate about the basis of story that I encountered in any university tutorial. Coleridge’s Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner is also referenced in the novel. The island on which the men have been deposited has a colony of albatross and the men become to fear the bird because of what it signifies in the poem; death.
Questions about religion, belief, and fate come up throughout the novel. Bloodworth reflects about what God says about men having talents and that they should use them, also on sexual morality, and Toper worries himself about heaven and hell, good and evil. Although Toper seems to be constantly crossing himself to ward off evil he also introduces to the group Eastern devout practices and different systems of belief.
On one level the novel is a survival story, about the dynamics between the men and whether they work for each other or against each other. Bloodworth’s journey is the most fascinating because he is the one that is questioning the structures of their lives and undergoes a personal transcendence; magical realism is used by Randall at the end of the novel in a somewhat Rushdie-like fall (if I say anymore I will ruin the ending – but I’d like to discuss it more) which seems to signify Bloodworth’s transition from the real to the magic within the real.
I only have a couple of gripes about the novel. The first is narrating the story using the idiom of an uneducated man, not because it is hard to understand or read but because Randall used a similar device in Hokitika Town, and while I thoroughly enjoyed that novel and the use of idiom in it, I wanted something different in this book. Secondly, some of the facts she relates about mental health seem to be left over research from The Curative (another book that I thoroughly enjoyed – though at times the main character seemed too knowledgeable about the future of mental health). While I think the execution of these elements is great, I question the repetition of their use in this work, I expected something different in this novel from such an accomplished writer.