Woah, “Book award fiction finalists book group discussion” – that’s quite a mouthful. Appropriately, for what was quite a discussion for this month’s “real-life” book group: three books rather than the usual one.
So our extra heartfelt thanks to the book group of Wellingtonian Ruth Nichol, a communications coordinator and former books editor of the Evening Post and Dominion Post newspapers (favourite book: Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen).
The group consisists of mostly fiftysomethings and has been meeting for more than 15 years, with a changing membership but a core group of about four.
“Over the last 15 years, our members have had babies, seen their children grow up and leave home; got separated and divorced and – in one case – got remarried; now we’re about to welcome the first book group grandchild,” says Ruth.
“The very first book we discussed was Drusilla Modjeska’s The Orchard, which we were a bit ambivalent about, but we’ve read some amazing books since then, as well as a few duds. When all else fails, we talk about food and shoes.”
No food and shoes were talked about in the course of this discussion, however. The books had that at least in their favour.
The other group members who took part – over the course of several weeks via Facebook – are:
Carole Van Grondelle, communications consultant (State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett)
Alison Bartley, gallerist (The Children’s Book, by AS Byatt)
Ruth Allison, English teacher (Gifted, by Patrick Evans)
Nicola Salmond, journalist (Running in the Family, by Michael Ondaatje)
The group was joined for the purposes of this discussion by Zoe Higgins, Nicola’s student daughter (Fictions, by Jorge Luis Borges)
Ruth N: ”I thought I’d kick things off [on July 9] by saying that I’m finding Paula Morris’s Rangatira pretty hard going and I’m not sure whether I can be bothered finishing it. I’m not sure what the problem is – the main character never seems to come to life, and I keep forgetting who everyone is and what their characteristics are meant to be. It feels a bit like a 19th-century travelogue and at this stage I can’t quite see what the point of it is. Will be interested to hear what the rest of you think.”
Carole: ”I understand exactly what you mean. I approached this book with much interest and intrigue because it’s a great topic – about a tour of Maori rangatira in England in 1863. I also hadn’t read Morris before so was looking forward to it. But I found reading Rangatira a disappointing and rather tedious experience. I was disappointed because all the elements were there for a great tale involving race and class divisions, drama on the high seas, madness and death, famous historical figures, love and romance, acrimonious disputes over money and lots of naughty behaviour (boozing, womanising, defections) etc. At heart, I felt Morris had not utilised her novelistic skills well. For me, anyway, she failed to create a world of colour, texture and emotion in which the reader could become immersed. I did think that by telling the story through the point of view of Paratene Te Manu – her own real ancestor – it limited the storytelling. He was not a very observant storyteller and it constrained our understanding of the large cast of characters. He seemed quite a passive character too, offering few (lyrically observed) insights into others. So I agree that none of the characters was fleshed out well so that we never became emotionally engaged with them. I wonder if the fact Morris was telling the story of her own ancestor cramped her ability to tell this story in novel form. Did she feel she couldn’t take novelistic liberties with the story or the characters? Thought it was telling that her initial intention for this story was as a short story but her publisher encouraged her to turn it into a novel. There was tremendous scholarship involved in researching this story – I note she spent nine years on this project. I wonder if it mightn’t have been better told in non-fiction form or at least in some other way?”
Zoe: ”I have to admit I’m struggling to finish it as well. I agree with Ruth about Paratene never coming to life as a character – his narrative voice just never rang true for me. I felt like there was opportunity to develop a really unique lyrical voice for him, given his supposedly traditional upbringing and steeping in Maori oral tradition – but he never sounds quite right.”
Nicola: “I had to flog myself through it and even trying hard I called it about half way through. As a tale teller, he was dull, although the tale was so full of life and interest. I felt there wasn’t enough narrative drive or real plot. Is was more like, ‘ We did this….we went there… then I’ll let you know now something bad was going to happen…’”
Zoe: “The other characters so far haven’t amounted to much more than names and a few informed characteristics. It seems like Morris doesn’t trust the reader to judge and analyse the characters – we have to constantly be told that someone is “loud’ or “not trustworthy” etc. The same with foreshadowing – Morris doesn’t seem to have enough confidence in the story to let it unfold naturally – there have to be dark hints about drama to come.”
Nicola: ”I also thought she didn’t manage to use the two threads of the story – the portrait sitting and the trip – effectively together. I had no sense of Paratene in the artist’s studio remembering his trip. The author would just suddenly plunk a scene down with him in the studio and you’d remember that he was drifting back and remembering. As Carole said, I felt very stornly that this was a marvellous idea not well executed. None of the characters ever lifted off the page for me and became real. I couldn’t actually remember which of them was which at any stage.”
Ruth N: ”I agree very much that the two elements of the story just don’t knit well together – sitting for the portrait seems to have nothing to do with the trip to England, apart from the fact that they both – one presumes – actually happened so she felt, having done the research, she had to include them. It’s as if, having done so much research, she’s decided she’s jolly well going to use it.There’s a great story in there waiting to come out, but it’s not the one that Morris has told.”
Zoe: “I think I remember from an interview that the portrait sitting didn’t actually happen – Morris said she thought that the painting was probably done from a photograph in real life – so she must have thought it would make a good framing device. I guess it does say something about the depiction/interpretation of Maori by European culture?”
Alison: “I finished the book and am pleased to have read it. Morris has chosen to work in a genre which I think has been producing some hugely exciting literature in recent years – think AS Byatt with The Children Book or Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall (and her recent one, which I haven’t read) or closer to home Fiona Kidman’s The Captive Wife - but Morris, I agree with you all, fails to make the shift from non-fiction to fiction in a way that excites as those other books do. I don’t want to repeat what has been said so will make a couple of different comments. Her presentation of the Maori class system was interesting and associated with that the depiction of the reception the rangatira received. There is a sense that they felt seen and their mana understood by royalty in a way that it wasn’t by others. Then that leads you to think about the impact that had on the signing of the Treaty (two equal partners) and the loyalty of Maori to the relationship of the Crown to the present day. The previous point isn’t fully formulated and I am not suggesting one universal Maori perspective by any means, but Morris did open up some new lines of thought about our history that I haven’t thought about before – and I liked that. The other point I wanted to make was that I found interesting the little bit that was presented about the traditional Maori world view, but Morris shied away from that for the most part, saying it had been given up for Christianity. When she returned to this at the end, she created a strong ending – the slipperiness of the European making Paratene afraid for the “first time” in his life. Yet even that is kind of weakened with the image of his people only really living without fear when the weather was stormy when they would be safe from attack. Finally, I wanted to know more about Paratene’s own immediate family and love life – closer than his nephew, which as I recall is the closest relative he talks about. If knowledge of that is lost to history, what does the historical novelist do to make the novel comes alive emotionally? Is it the confidence to step fully into the fictional and to blur the boundaries between known fact and fiction that makes for great historical fiction?”
Ruth A: “I started with Rangitira because it was the one I was most interested in reading. I had read Witi Ihimaera’s The Parihaka Woman and enjoyed learning about history through fiction. What I enjoyed most about Rangitira was the narrative viewpoint of Paratene, who observed what was happening in his own time and culture and who Nicholas Reid described as ‘the unreliable narrator’, which left it up to the reader to reflect and make judgments from the 21st-century perspective. particularly on the reasons for taking the rangitira to England and the involvement of the Wesleyans and William Jenkins. So I am sorry most of you found it hard going. I loved the portrait-sitting part, as for most of 2011 Auckland Art Gallery had a collection of Lindauer and Goldie portaits on show and Paratene’s portrait was one of them, so I was already captured. They have done a wonderful job of restoring them and I went several times to view them. I appreciated Morris’s description of how the painting was done and what Paratene was asked to wear. It is fascinating to compare Paretene’s description with the actual details of the painting. Morris has done some great research.”
Alison: “Totally agree that the research is impressive and a week or so after finishing the book I am left with lots of impressions and thoughts from it – some interestingly just reinforced by the Susan Orr story George Clark Junior, which traverses similar territory. This is a story set in 1842 around the first execution in New Zealand and like Rangatira is based on history and explores the clash of world views, views of justice – traditional Maori ways of doing things and the British way. What I like in both is how they expose the reader to a Maori way of thinking. I am impressed with Orr’s story and how in such a small story she has managed to convey so much history and emotion and cleverly – by having as her narrator the son of a missionary who is close to the central condemned figure and understand the Maori viewpoint – shows the complexity of navigating these different ways of thinking and doing. And this brings me back to the thought that somehow it is generating that emotional engagement that is critical to making historical fiction fly.”
Ruth A: ”I like your idea of ‘making fiction fly’. I have read The Trowenna Sea where Witi Ihimaera deals with this same incident of the hanging and the subsequent exile to Tasmania. I am particularly interested in learning about New Zealand history and fiction is one more way of accessing the past even if it is only one person’s view. I like how Paratene is living within his own world and slowly pieces together the realisation of being viewed as ‘exotica’.”
Alison: ”Having connected Rangatira with Sue Orr via one story, I want to say that I am very much enjoying Orr’s stories. They are not all knockouts but at two thirds of the way through she is impressing me as a writer. She, too, has certainly done her research and I love the concept of the book – with each story responding to an earlier great story. She has also got a huge range and versatility. I am also interested in her Maori creation story – it brought the story alive but did leave me feeling a bit so what… at the end. I am interested that she, as I assume a Pakeha writer (as there is no evidence anywhere of her claiming any whakapapa), has stepped into this territory. Not many Pakeha have done that but it seems to me it is sensitively done and to be able to step into the mind of another, despite cultural differences, is what a writer does. It would also help world peace if we all made more effort to see things from the other point of view. Anyway, rant aside, from her very first story I was engaged. I liked Journeyman and now when I think about it it is a similar theme of the mainstream or dominant group not thinking, looking, questioning outside their own world view. But she makes David as the insider/outsider very real.”
Ruth A: “I was also engaged with the idea of using original stories as a framework for writing new ones. I am very familiar with The Doll’s House so it was fun to be able to pick up the references. I enjoyed reading The Overcoat at the end of the book. It made Spectacles even more haunting; Lotte was so accepting of her fate. I felt very angry and that is the skill of the writer, I suppose, to engender emotion. Orr’s stories stood strongly on their own, however, even without the framework of the original. Orr’s stories are so varied; the characters, the setting, the style of writing and the choice of narrator. I think she is particularly successful with the first-person narration, as in the contemporary voice of the young Claudia in The Open Home and the much wiser weather presenter Tawhiri in Recreation. I suppose that is because the writer has chosen such a wide range of original short stories.I did enjoy the rather sly Scratchy and the way it slowly revealed the bewildered world of Edna Carson.”
Ruth N: ”I suspect I’m in the minority, but I found the ‘based on a story by’ concept quite distracting and unnecessary. I’m not sure that knowing they were inspired – often quite peripherally – by another writer really adds anything to the final product. The only one of the original stories I am familiar with is The Doll’s House, which I have now reread in an effort to see how it might be reflected in The Open Home. Once you take away the physical details of Claudia’s house – the paint colours and the red carpet, and the fact that it is two-bedroomed – there aren’t that many echoes. I guess I’d always seen The Doll’s House as being less about the doll’s house itself and more about how children’s imaginations can cut through class divisions: Kezia Burnell and Else Kelvey are both equally entranced by the little lamp. But there isn’t even a lamp in The Open Home! Or are we meant to see Claudia and her mother as the Kelvey family transplanted into the doll’s house? I guess what I’m saying is that if the only thing Orr has taken from the original is a few decorating details, does it make any difference whether it was inspired by the Mansfield story? Or am I missing something? I do think Orr has produced some excellent stories. They’re a bit uneven – I didn’t actually read George Clark Junior, as I found the stream of consciousness style fairly offputting. But I particularly liked the first one, Journeyman, and also Worms and The Eviction Party. I think she’s really good at evoking a time and place (especially provincial New Zealand). I’m impressed by how well she captures the world of teenage boys in Worms, though I guess that’s possibly because I’ve never been one.”
Ruth A: ”I do think the narrative voice of the girl Claudia in The Open Home was similar to the young, rather naive Kezia in The Doll’s House. They were both rather engaging in their freshness and approach to the adults in their life. In the end, I don’t think it matters too much about the original stories. I agree Orr has written some very accessible stories of her own that have a strong sense of an ordinary place and purpose. As she says herself, ‘the common man and woman have taken a firm grip on the literary subconscious’. A Regrettable Slip of the Tongue made me think of the number of times I have wished I could take back something I said but in the end you realise that you are not responsible for how your words affect others. Do you think Gretta Conroy was strong spirited and deliberately told her story knowing it would torment her new partner? In the original story by James Joyce, Gabriel is the main character, a man who has control over his wife Gretta. I like how Orr has turned the tables on these characters.”
Zoe: “I’ll throw in some minority dissent – I wasn’t particularly impressed by Orr’s collection overall. There were a couple of impressive stories – I thought Spectacles was well-handled – and she certainly has original and interesting ideas. But I felt the execution was generally unconvincing. Very few of the characters came alive for me – for instance, in Journeyman (which it seems as if most people liked?) I simply couldn’t get inside the daily reality of the central couple’s life – their son seemed like a plot tool rather than commanding empathy for himself or them. And I frequently struggled to believe that characters would act as she made them do – there was never a moment of recognition where I thought, ‘Yes, I’d do that’ or ‘I know someone like that.’ Although the attempts to vary narrative voices were impressive, I found those generally unconvincing as well. The narrator in Worms sounds like a middle-aged woman attempting to sound like a high school slacker, rather than any teenagers I know. And Claudia in The Open Home starts off not knowing the meaning of ‘brouhaha’ – then two pages later gives us a very mature analysis of adult social dynamics. I appreciate that Orr has tried to give us variety, but I think she’s definitely strongest when writing in her own voice. On the whole, I thought Orr’s was far and away the most interesting of the three books – but on its own merits not particularly strong.”
Carole: “I, too, thoroughly enjoyed Orr’s collection of stories. I admired the premise of the book – it was clever and fun, and I thought well executed. I agree some stories were stronger and more convincing than others so it felt slightly more uneven than Fiona Kidman’s collection. Nevertheless, it’s a fine achievement in my opinion. At [my other] book group last week, we discussed the idea that without the cohesion provided by her inspiration from short story classics Orr’s collection would still hang together pretty well as ‘outsider’ stories. Almost all of the main characters stood apart from the people around them. That is true of David in Journeyman, Claudia in The Open Home, Paul in Worms, Edna in Scratchy, Ronnie in The Eviction Party and Lotte Jones in Spectacles.I feel quite differently to Zoe about Journeyman. This was the strongest story for me. Every word rang true. It painted a portrait of a late-30s new dad, out of his depth with a severely disabled child, and trying to survive in the treacherous waters of high finance. None of his rich bonehead golf buddies had a clue what stresses there were in David’s life – emotional, marital, financial. I held my breath right through the story, wondering which way things would go. Impressive.”
Nicola: ”I have also found myself in a pair of capable hands with Fiona Kidman. But they made me feel low. Aging, soured relationships, abortions, quite frankly they depressed me. I feel it is a collection which would really only have resonance for older women. Kidman writes very much from her own era and I found the concerns of the characters very much ones from the past. That is not a bad thing, but the collection overall for me was one that looked backwards. Compared with the Orr collection, it seemed very controlled and perhaps lacking vigour. In technical terms, I believe her skill trumps the other books by miles, however. I found Orr’s stories interesting overall and ambitious in concept (in terms of using a prior story as a springboard for a new one) but I’m with Zoe in terms of feeling she hasn’t always pulled off what she’s tried to do. For me, also, the characters didn’t feel real. I was aware of the author behind them at all times. For me, the use of prior stories – for example, The Doll’s House – highlighted the gap between Katherine Mansfield’s skill in evoking nuances of emotion and endings with resonance and the lack of that, really, in Orr’s story.”
Alison: “Nicola has started a new strand of thought about the purpose of the short story and what we want from it. Is the purpose of the short story, or fiction generally, to expand our understanding of the ‘human condition’? In her introduction, Orr mentions that The Overcoat was heralded for doing this and that, it seems to me, is also her aim in a modest kind of way. Given the difficulty of saying anything new, it is like she has taken angles that play to almost timeless themes – to create vignettes, which of course is all a short story can do. And the best are resonant and memorable. Several of Orr’s stories have stayed with me. Journeyman is one and I rate it as successful, as she accurately captures all kinds of beautiful complex yet real and ordinary strands of middle-class life – contemporary attitudes to wealth, the struggle to survive, the daily grind of David and his wife, the orthodontist with the crooked teeth dealing to the people who want to be seen to be able to afford his services, David’s conflict with the resort prices, the way the others take affluence for granted, David’s exhaustion at the end. Thanks to Google, I was able to quickly locate and read online Maupassant’s original story. Both stories have as a core concern exposure of the smug complacency of wealth. Maupassant is more black and white, and while Orr is making much the same point as Maupassant, I think she is more subtle, complex and nuanced. So that’s impressive. Orr’s intelligence, curiosity and ability to go into the worlds of others make her a writer to watch for me. I haven’t managed to get to reread Fiona Kidman this year apart from the first story. I enjoyed the stories immensely at the time but they haven’t stayed with me strongly. I am a Kidman fan but again I agree with the comment that they are very much an older person looking back with it seems the compassionate wisdom of age.”
Ruth N: “I really enjoyed Kidman’s collection – I read it really fast and I was really engaged by it. I’m sure a rereading would reveal plenty of flaws – one review I found online, for example, accused her of using too many cliches. And I guess it’s fair to say that she’s not a great stylist – her prose definitely falls into the plain and unadorned category. Other reviewers have talked about being in ‘safe hands’, which is true – after 50 years’ experience, you’d expect Kidman to be a safe pair of hands. But she’s a lot more than that. The stories seem really simple but I think that she controls her narratives with great skill. It’s a bit like going for a drive with a really experienced driver in a really comfortable car. You motor along, enjoying the ride… and taking in the view, so that you hardly notice when you take an unexpected detour – until you end up somewhere completely different from where you expected. I also like the wisdom that informs the stories. Now in her early 70s, Kidman has enough life experience under her belt to know that even the fieriest of emotional conflagrations will burn out, and that no matter what damage and devastation it causes, you’ll survive it. And I like the way she traverses the universal experiences of girlhood and womanhood, while also recreating particular times and places in New Zealand’s past. Extremes, about the two women who go to Australia to have abortions, is a fascinating glimpse into a time that most of us have forgotten (or only vaguely knew about). Similarly, Fragrance Rising provides a tantalising insight into Gordon Coates and his complicated history.
My favourites are the three linked stories in part two – The Man from Tooley St, Some Other Man and Under Water. I hope she writes more about this family and the mystery that lies at its heart.”
Ruth A: ”I was really engaged with these stories, too. I believe Kidman is a master craftsman at the art of telling a story through the actions and responses of her characters. There is not a lot of ‘telling’ , more a lot of ‘showing’ and the reader is not confronted by the writer’s presence so much as having to get to grips with the characters themselves. This is despite the fact that it is a short story and has limited time to develop character. At the same time there is a very strong, engaging plot. It is interesting that most of her characters are female and maybe that is why I could relate to them more easily. I particularly enjoyed the continuing saga of the missing wife, mother, grandmother and discovering how each character’s memory is from a different generational perspective. I also liked the thread of ‘fire’. And not just physical fire but emotional fire, the ‘smouldering passion’, the stiring of dormant embers’ in the unravelling and piecing together of the elusive truth and unreliable memories around the missing Joy. I so wanted her to be found!”
And so to the crunch: who would they give the award to? Our podcast discussion voted 3-1 in favour of Paula Morris (with me dissenting in favour of Fiona Kidman). Alison has yet to make her call (come on, Alison, there’s no ducking it), but as for the others …
Ruth N: “My favourite is Kidman’s, and I think it deserves to win. In terms of what we want from a book, surely one of the most important is readability, and The Trouble with Fire certainly has that. I think there’s a lot to be said for fiction that has been put together by someone who has practised their craft and knows how to construct a story and does it really well. I found Rangatira, on the other hand, so unreadable that even though I took it on holiday with me I still didn’t finish it.”
Carole: “I agree: of the three finalists, The Trouble with Fire is the most assured, most consistently stylish work. While they are very clearly marked as the work of an older woman, with an older woman’s concerns and perspective, I didn’t in the least find them depressing. I was particularly impressed by Kidman’s subtlety and restraint. I thought they were beautifully crafted and I read them compulsively. The book gets my vote.”
Ruth A: ”I am with you two. Kidman is my choice of the three. Having said that, Rangitira is a close second. The two are so different in style, however, that I find it difficult to make comparisons. I am a fan of historical fiction and I thought the voice of Paratene particularly convincing. But then my favourite book recently was Gifted by Patrick Evans, so you can see where I am coming from. Kidman has a deceptively simple style. ‘Someone will bring him home around dinner time’ has underlying layers of meaning and there is not a wasted word in her descriptions, which are meticulous - ’he loved the big white gannets with their gold and ebony crown, thousands upon thousands of them, living side by side, nesting on the bare pale sandstone rock’. Her stories capture our New Zealand characters and settings.”
Nicola: ”I am struggling to give any of them a winner’s vote, because none of them fully transported me to the fictional worlds they describe. Perhaps I am just in the wrong personal space for Kidman’s subject matter – because her crafting of words is far and away the best…and to be fair the stories did have an authenticity about the human condition that I don’t feel Orr’s stories ever achieved. Orr’s writing just wasn’t up to it for me and the stories didn’t have the ring of truth about them for me. Rangitira I dismiss out of hand – the characters just never lifted off the page. I reluctantly give my vote to Kidman – she’sgood, but not fab enough to be a winner!”
Zoe: Kidman has to be my choice as well – though a negative, rather than a positive one. Like Ruth [N], I thought Rangatira was unreadable, and though Orr’s stories were original I found them contrived; the characters and incidents mostly bent to what Orr wanted to say about the ‘human condition’ instead of coming from genuine observation. As everyone’s already said, Kidman’s stories are assured, skilful, and closely written. They’re fairly conventional and as someone perhaps 50 years younger than the author I found the issues very removed from my experience… but The Trouble with Fire is better than the other two options.”
So it’s Kidman then – although not exactly resounding enthusiasm for either her or this year’s fiction finalists as a whole.
You can find out what the real judges have chosen on the night of August 1 – I’ll be tweeting from the ceremony (@GuySomerset) and blogging here next day with podcast interviews with the fiction and overall Book of the Year winners. Or winner – they can be one and the same. Although, on the basis of this discussion, perhaps shouldn’t be.
Meanwhile, all the New Zealand Post Book Awards winners will be in conversation with Jennifer Ward-Lealand at the Rendezvous Hotel, Auckland, on August 2, 12.15pm-1.45pm, free entry.
The Book Club will be back here next Friday, with both Hamish Clayton and Kate De Goldi singing the praises of August’s choice, David Ballantyne’s 1968 novel Sydney Bridge Upside Down (Text Classics, $15.99).
A corker – get reading.
And don’t forget to comment below about your own views on the fiction finalists and who you’d like to win.