Friday, 18 April 2014

The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt by Tracy Farr (Freemantle Press, 2013)

Tracy Farr grew up in Australia and has lived in New Zealand since 1996, which I think qualifies her for inclusion on a New Zealand book blog.  Farr’s novel is infused with reflections on both countries.  The main character, Lena, or Dame Helena if we’re being official, reflects on her life, and the cities she has lived in: Perth, Sydney, Dunedin and Singapore, to name a few.   As Lena moves from city to city, country to country, we learn of Lena’s love of music which starts with humming into a comb wrapped with tissue paper, to the cello, to learning the instrument in which she makes a name for herself - the Theremin.  The electrical instrument signifies modernity, and that Lena is a thoroughly modern woman.
The novel doesn’t have a plot as such, rather it re-tells episodes from Lena’s life as she reflects on her experiences.  At the beginning of the narrative a documentary film maker asks Lena to share her stories.  While Lena has encountered some fame for her musical abilities throughout her life, she is now a pensioner whose fame is now a memory, memories that the filmmaker is keen to capture.  Interspersed between the scenes set in the present, are reflections and memories of the past.  Initially, I thought that Lena’s reflections are the stories she is telling to the filmmaker because the memories are ‘told’ more than they are ‘described.’  By ‘told’ I mean more ‘tell’ than description.  I got this impression because the sentence length in most of the narrative is long, which, to me, indicates speech, a lingering story, spliced with commas, and semi-colons.  But, Lena’s reflections aren’t told to the filmmaker; instead they end up being episodes that she has written about herself.  This made me question the point of having the framing device of the filmmaker if it isn’t the filmmaker that Lena is telling her life story to.
However, the intrusion of the filmmaker into Lena’s life initiates her reflections, and it also brings up a conversation about memory, about truth and invention.  Mo, the filmmaker, asks Lena to try to tell her story in a new way, to make the old stories feel new by not relating them in the same way she always has.  Instead, Mo wants Lena to improvise, to make it fresh in order to acknowledge both invention and reality in memory.  Lena says that she will try, but I got a greater sense that Lena was choosing what to reveal rather than inventing elements of story.  Throughout the novel there are pieces of information that Lena is keeping to herself, which for the reader is a little frustrating but it also shows that you can only ever know something about someone if they choose to reveal it.  To emphasise the metafictional qualities of the text, Mo also says that the final film will reveal as much about her as it will Lena.  In filming Lena, Mo is also revealing herself.
While the predominant theme is memory, sexuality is also dwelt on in the novel.  Lena has several love affairs with men and women, but the most significant relationship is with Beatrix, an artist and ‘new woman’ of the 1920s.  Farr uses the analogy of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, which is being built when Lena arrives in the city, to show the increasing physical and emotional closeness of the women.  The two ends of the bridge don’t connect when Lena and Beatrix first meet, but they do eventually, and the pair, along with the rest of the city, walks across it.  This joining signifies their physically relationship, I think, but it certainly isn’t a point that is lingered on, which is strange given that Lena is 18 at the time and there hasn’t been a hint of any other sexual activity.  I would’ve thought it would be a big deal, in more ways than one, that could have been lingered on a little more explicitly.  Not doing so relates to Lena’s keeping some things to herself but I just don’t think keeping everything to herself works in a novel.

While I do have a few reservations about the framing device in the novel, the book also offers a perspective on Lena’s life lived through two World Wars and extending through to the 1990s.  We learn about the personal challenges in Lena’s life however, societal conformities about sexuality and gender roles are held at a distance.  A strength in the novel is Farr’s descriptions and obvious love of the ocean, and the scenes with musical instruments were delightful.  Farr’s novel has been long listed for the 2014 Miles Franklin literary award.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Lamplighter by Kerry Donovan Brown (VUP 2014)

Lamplighter made me think of Lloyd Jones and his philosophy about narrative.  In this interview ( Jones says that he enjoys elements in fiction where divergent points meet up, for instance when oral and written traditions make their way into a story.  Jones isn’t interested in plots (although one usually emerges) but in a persuasive narrative voice that communicates playfulness and intense concentration.  Jones also notes how people who are sealed off from the world look to the horizon where possibility and ‘otherness’ exist.  All of these elements are in Donovan Brown’s novel.

The prose in Lightlighter is at times poetic, especially when Donovan Brown is describing the wetland area where the novel is set.  The story is told in third person narration focalised through Candle.  His Grandfather is the current Lamplighter, a role that Candle is set to inherit, and his apprenticeship involves following his Grandfather as he lights the lamps every evening.  While a great deal of the descriptive prose is poetic, at other times, the writing slips into fable, especially when the Lamplighter is recalling stories of the creatures that exist beyond the lamplight.  There are also references to pā sites and battles on the land.  The novel is full of stories about place that are recalled through oral storytelling.  The divergent elements of storytelling – oral and written – meet and play with each other in Brown’s novel, and show the palimpsest of stories that mingle together in a single place.

I found Brown’s narrative voice intoxicating and lulling, like any good fable, but the story is also bound to the realities of life in a coastal settlement.  It’s the meeting of the divergent elements of fable and realism that I really enjoyed, and the combination made the story feel timeless.  While there are indications that the novel is set recently, the inclusion of a video game for example, it also feels like the action could be happening at any point in the last couple of centuries.  The community’s relationship to modernity is playful while also having the intense concentration that Jones speaks of because the sense of timelessness shows the unchanging attitude of some members of the community.
However, the community of Porbeagle is on the brink of change because the lamplighter’s role is being disestablished, which means that Candle’s apprenticeship is nearing the end.  The role of the Lamplighter is to light a perimeter against the dark “and the wildernesses beyond.”  This boundary between light and dark is like the ocean’s horizon to Jones.  In the wilderness lies other ways of being, it’s where ‘otherness’ exists.  The lighting of the boundary against the dark is an allegory for sexuality. Throughout the narrative Candle negotiates the community’s attitude towards his sexuality.  The mix of fable and realism in relation to sexuality is very clever.  A novel that discusses homosexuality in realist terms has perhaps become too familiar, and canny readers are aware of the themes and the feelings of characters who are coming to terms with their sexuality in a community that is perhaps disapproving.  Brown makes a familiar story new by mixing elements of realism and fable in discussions about sexuality.

About halfway through the novel when I had sobered up from the intoxication of the language I wondered where the novel was going, but a plot does come into play and all the stories of the Lamplighter and mythology come together.  The characters in the novel are fully formed and entirely convincing, but the most impressive feature in Brown’s writing is his descriptions (and evident love) of the coastal environment. While I didn’t always know the critters and plants that Brown was describing, the layering of detail added to magical qualities of place.